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Slain rapper's lyrics used in shooter's defense in murder trial

After a dispute in Atlanta, the suspect says he felt threatened in a random encounter in L.A. But prosecutors say the musician's glorifying of the gang lifestyle does not justify his shooting.

May 21, 2010|By Jack Leonard, Los Angeles Times

As an up-and-coming rapper, Dolla glorified the gang lifestyle, bragging about carrying a pistol and his ability to use it.

"You be running when I shoot, I be shooting where you running," he sang in his debut single released in 2008.

A year later, the rapper, whose real name is Roderick Burton, was shot as he allegedly ran from a gunman inside the Beverly Center's parking garage. He was struck four times, three in the back.

With the murder trial of his admitted shooter wrapping up this week, the work of the 21-year-old musician is center stage as jurors wrestle with two conflicting portraits of Burton: thug or entertainer.

The defense attorney has drawn, in part, on the rapper's lyrics and Internet videos with alleged gang members to portray Burton as a violent gang member who was attacking his client. But prosecutors argue that Burton's gang ties are irrelevant and that his music was simply entertainment in a culture in which violence sells.

"What an artist does and what an artist creates does not reflect on reality," Deputy Dist. Atty. Halim Dhanidina told jurors as he flashed violent lyrics sung by John Lennon and other music icons on a projector screen. "The defense is trying to inflame you."

Gangsta rap has long drawn fire for its violence-laced lyrics. Critics have blamed the genre for inciting real crime. Some successful rappers have been accused of violent crimes, and in other cases, suspects have told authorities that gangsta rap songs provoked them to violence.

But the murder trial of Aubrey Berry, a 24-year-old events promoter from Atlanta, is unusual in the way it has focused attention on the artistic work of someone who was the victim of violence.

With long, neat dreadlocks down his back, Berry took the stand last week and told jurors that he met Burton in an Atlanta nightclub on May 7, 2009.

In the packed club, Berry said, he bumped a woman's drink, leading to a confrontation with a group of men who beat and kicked him as he lay on the floor. Among them, he testified, was Burton, who he said chanted the name of a Los Angeles street gang, the Mansfield Crips, after the assault.

Later, Berry testified, he went online to conduct research into Burton and the Mansfield Crips.

Berry said he saw photos of the rapper throwing gang signs. He listened to Burton's music and saw an Internet video in which the rapper bragged about breaking another man's jaw.

"I had a personal experience with the things they're bragging about," Berry told jurors. "They're not just talking about these things. They're doing it."

On May 18, 2009, Berry said he was in Los Angeles, eating with a prospective business contact at P.F. Chang's in the Beverly Center when he headed to the restroom. On the way back, he noticed a familiar face at another table. Burton was dining with friends. The two men, he said, locked eyes.

Berry had a concealed handgun on his hip, a weapon he said he routinely carried after becoming the victim of several violent crimes, including a robbery in which a pistol was pressed to his temple. He had a permit to carry the firearm in Georgia and other states, but said he did not realize the permit did not apply to California.

Berry said his lunch partner told him to get out, so he headed to the valet desk for his car. A minute later, Burton and his party left the restaurant. Berry said Burton ran at him.

"You in my hood," Berry testified the rapper told him. "You wanna die, huh?"

Berry drew his Taurus 9-millimeter pistol and chambered a round. He testified that Burton reached back and appeared to be going for a weapon.

"It was either him or me at that time," Berry said.

The first shot grazed the inside of Burton's left bicep. The next three struck his back, one penetrating his heart.

Berry's attorney, Howard R. Price, disputed the prosecution's theory that Burton was shot as he was running away. He told jurors his client feared for his life and was justified in pulling the trigger.

Price noted that Burton had a tattoo on the inside of three fingers: Mans-field gangsta. He played "Is you holdin?" — one of the rapper's songs that Berry said he listened to before visiting L.A.

"Am I holdin'?"

Know what I'm talkin' bout?

It means "is my pistol on me?"

Hell yea, ALL TIMES

After playing the song, Price argued that Burton was probably armed the day of his death. Police never recovered a gun from the body, but Price suggested that the rapper's friends removed a weapon before officers arrived.

Price noted that a waiter said that Burton's group left without paying for lunch and that a restaurant surveillance video shows the group looking as if they were searching for somebody as they left.

But prosecutors accused Berry of concocting his story that he was afraid of Burton and the Mansfield Crips. They noted that a valet at the upscale shopping mall was close to the shooting but did not hear Burton threaten Berry.

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