A man who shot and killed an up-and-coming rapper at the Beverly Center last year was acquitted of murder Friday in a case that focused in part on the victim's violence-laced gangsta rap lyrics.
Aubrey Berry, 24, was hugged by his defense attorney as the last of the not guilty verdicts was read in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom. Friends and family of rapper Dolla, whose real name was Roderick Anthony Burton II, wailed and sobbed in the audience.
"Obviously, what happened on May 18, 2009, was a horrible tragedy for everyone," Superior Court Judge Michael E. Pastor told the lawyers in court. "The jurors have spoken."
Berry testified last week that he opened fire in self-defense in the parking garage of the upscale mall. He said Burton, 21, threatened to kill him near the valet desk and reached toward his back as though he were drawing a gun. Police found no weapon on Burton, who was shot once in the left biceps and three times in the back.
Berry testified that Burton had been part of a group of men who kicked and punched him 11 days earlier at an Atlanta nightclub.
Minutes before the shooting, the two men saw each other again while dining separately at P.F. Chang's in the Beverly Center. Berry said he left the restaurant in fear and watched Burton leave a minute later and run at him.
Berry had a concealed handgun on his hip, a weapon he said he routinely carried after being the victim of several violent crimes. 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.
Jurors deliberated less than two days before rejecting murder or manslaughter charges in Burton's death and assault charges in which Berry was accused of firing at two men who were with Burton at the time of the shooting. Only Burton was struck by gunfire.
Outside court, defense attorney Howard R. Price hailed the jury for carefully weighing the evidence and faulted the district attorney's office for pursuing the shooting as a murder, calling the decision "absurd."
"This is clearly a case of justice being done," he said.
During the trial, Berry told jurors he had learned about Burton through online research after the Atlanta assault. He said he viewed an Internet video in which Burton stood with alleged gang members and boasted about breaking a man's jaw. And he listened to one of Burton's songs in which the rapper glorified gangs and bragged about always carrying a gun.
Price described Burton as a violent gang member and played both the video and the song — "Is You Holdin'?" — during closing arguments this week. He said they showed that Berry was justified in fearing for his life when he shot Burton.
"His music is horrendous, offensive," Price said Friday as he waited for his client to leave court. "I don't think he engendered any sympathy."
Deputy Dist. Atty. Bobby Grace said he was disappointed by the verdict but felt prosecutors presented a compelling case. He said he was unsure whether the rap lyrics swayed the jury.
"You'd hate to think that was the tipping point," he said outside court.
Jurors told the judge they did not want to speak to reporters and were escorted from the courthouse through a secure exit.
Prosecutors argued during the trial that Burton's music was irrelevant. They said his lyrics were simply entertainment: part of a gangsta rap genre that went mainstream years ago. And they accused the defense of victimizing Burton again by characterizing him as a thug.
Prosecutors told jurors that Berry was lying about the shooting and argued that ballistics and blood evidence showed the singer was running away when the fatal shots into his back were fired.
But Price disagreed, saying Burton was stationary and posing a threat when he was shot. The lawyer said the ordeal of the last year had taken a toll on his client, who was housed in isolation in jail to ensure his safety from gang members.
Price said he believed that Berry, who had no criminal record, was the key to his own acquittal.
"He was such a lovable, likable person that I think people understood and accepted his version," Price said. "Aubrey could never have won this case if the jury did not believe him."