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Judge Chides L.A. in Rapper Killing

A federal jurist orders the city to pay $1.1 million to the family of Notorious B.I.G. for withholding evidence on suspects.

January 21, 2006|Chuck Philips and Andrew Blankstein | Times Staff Writers

In a stinging rebuke, a federal judge Friday ordered the city of Los Angeles to pay $1.1 million in attorney fees and costs to the family of slain rap artist Notorious B.I.G. as sanctions for intentionally withholding evidence.

U.S. District Judge Florence-Marie Cooper declared a mistrial last summer in the family's civil lawsuit after finding that a Los Angeles Police Department detective hid statements linking the killing to rogue LAPD Officers David A. Mack and Rafael Perez, a central figure in the Rampart police scandal.

At the time, city attorneys protested that the statements had come from a jailhouse informant seeking special treatment, and robbery-homicide Det. Steven Katz insisted that he had overlooked the transcript of the remarks in his desk.

But Cooper ruled that Katz and perhaps others had deliberately concealed the information and said it could have bolstered the family's contention that Mack was involved in the killing.

The sanctions followed a series of legal volleys in which Cooper asked the plaintiffs' attorneys to submit fees and costs -- and the city to contest those calculations.

Though Cooper didn't give the family the $2 million it originally sought, she left open the possibility of an additional award of $300,000.

She included reimbursement for the cost of hiring security personnel for the family's lawyers and witnesses. The attorneys argued that security was "a prudent investment," and Cooper said the city's lawyers had not convinced her otherwise.

"It's pretty clear from the ruling that the judge understands this is a significant and difficult case," said Perry Sanders, an attorney for the rapper's family who is preparing for a retrial. "It seems like everything she did was measured, and we think what she did was appropriate."

"We were disappointed with the order," said Jonathan Diamond, press spokesman for City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo, whose office defended the city in the case. "We believe the officer's conduct was inadvertent, and we will prevail at trial on the merits of the case."

Notorious B.I.G. -- born Christopher Wallace -- was a 24-year-old Brooklyn-born rapper nearing the zenith of his career when he was gunned down March 9, 1997, after a party at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.

The Wallace murder, along with the killing of rap artist Tupac Shakur six months earlier in Las Vegas, remains unsolved. The rap killings have spawned an assortment of conspiracy theories involving police and governmental chicanery.

Wallace's mother, his sister and his widow, recording artist Faith Evans, sued the city, Mack, then-Police Chief Bernard C. Parks and others four years ago, alleging wrongful death and accusing LAPD officials of covering up the involvement of corrupt officers in the killing.

Most of the defendants were dropped from the lawsuit -- only the city remains -- but Cooper indicated that she would allow plaintiffs to revise their suit.

The trial began June 21, with plaintiffs trying to show that Mack, a convicted bank robber, orchestrated Wallace's killing with the help of college friend Amir Muhammad on behalf of Death Row Records chief Marion "Suge" Knight. All three have denied guilt.

After only four days of testimony, the case came to a halt when the plaintiffs' attorneys announced that they had received an anonymous tip from a former LAPD officer who said a department informant had tied Perez and Mack to the killing.

The tip led to an unprecedented desk-to-desk search of the LAPD's Robbery-Homicide Division that uncovered statements by a former Perez cellmate, who had told the department that the disgraced officer had confessed to participating with Mack in Wallace's killing.

Cooper ordered the mistrial days later.

Police Chief William J. Bratton, in a statement, said that after the mistrial, he ordered "a comprehensive and thorough review" of the Wallace inquiry and related documents. He also said he had instituted better tracking procedures for case files. "The failure to turn over some documents does not equal a deliberate cover-up by the LAPD," the statement said.

The retrial is expected to begin later this year.

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