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Rapper's Family's Suit Goes to Trial

L.A. defends itself against plaintiffs' claim that a corrupt officer planned the slaying of Notorious B.I.G., who was shot in 1997.

June 22, 2005|Andrew Blankstein | Times Staff Writer

A corrupt Los Angeles police officer orchestrated the 1997 slaying of Notorious B.I.G. as part of a bitter feud between rival record labels, a lawyer for the late rapper's family told jurors Tuesday during opening statements in a wrongful-death suit against the city.

But an attorney representing the city urged the jury to reject the allegations of a conspiracy in the death of the Brooklyn-born rapper, also known by his given name, Christopher Wallace, as well as Biggie Smalls, saying there was no evidence or witnesses pointing to Officer David Mack of the Los Angeles Police Department or any other killer in the unsolved slaying.

The distinction is key because before the jury can find fault with city policy -- and thus find for damages -- they must consider whether Mack hatched a plot to kill Wallace, drawing on his law enforcement background.

"This is a circumstantial evidence case," plaintiffs' lawyer Robert Frank told the six-man, three-woman jury. "If you look at all the facts of this case, more probably than not, David Mack was involved in this murder and used the tools of the trade to carry it out."

But Frank also tried to prepare jurors for possible inconsistencies in this first phase, saying some witnesses could be fearful "because the people with motive to kill Wallace are incredibly violent people."

Wallace was gunned down March 9, 1997, as he sat in a sport utility vehicle after a music industry party at the Petersen Automotive Museum in the Mid-Wilshire district.

The case spawned numerous investigations and widespread speculation fueled by a cottage industry of books, documentaries and magazine articles that explored possible conspiracies involving Wallace and the death of Tupac Shakur, another leading rap artist of his generation.

Early theories by Los Angeles police detectives, and reiterated in court by plaintiffs' lawyers, center on rap mogul Marion "Suge" Knight, who allegedly enlisted Mack to kill Wallace. Wallace's death came in the midst of a violent rivalry between Los Angeles-based Death Row Records and New York-based Bad Boy Entertainment.

Mack, described by Frank as a "gang member cop associated with Death Row," was later convicted and imprisoned for an unrelated bank robbery.

Attorneys for the Wallace family allege that Mack turned to college classmate Amir Muhammad to carry out the killing. However, neither the LAPD nor the FBI has named any suspect in the case.

Three years ago, Wallace's mother, Voletta, and other relatives sued Mack, Muhammad and former LAPD Chief Bernard C. Parks, in addition to the city.

The city refused Voletta Wallace's offer to settle the case for $105 million last year. The family later agreed to accept $18 million, but the City Council rejected the offer.

Mack and Knight have denied the allegations, and after pretrial rulings, only the city remains as a defendant.

But reducing the number of defendants has not meant smooth sailing: Three ex-convicts scheduled to testify for the Wallace family have changed their stories.

One of them, Kevin Hackie, has told the Los Angeles Times that he suffers from severe memory lapses resulting from medication prescribed for a stress condition.

A second witness, who has dropped out of sight, gave contradictory video statements to federal authorities.

The third and final witness, who has changed his story at least twice, first told LAPD investigators in 1999 that Knight, a cellmate, told him he orchestrated Wallace's murder in retaliation for the slaying of rival rapper Shakur a year earlier.

Assistant Los Angeles City Atty. Vince Marella said the bottom line is that the plaintiffs don't have a case.

There is "no evidence that there was any agreement between Mack and Knight to kill Mr. Wallace," he said.

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