More than three years after the fatal shooting of the rapper Nipsey Hussle, a proudly local Los Angeles artist whose killing reverberated far beyond the world of West Coast hip-hop, the trial of the accused gunman, Eric R. Holder Jr., is nearing its conclusion. The case, which had been repeatedly delayed because of the Covid-19 pandemic, began earlier this month, and lawyers made their closing arguments on Thursday.
Hussle, whose real name was Ermias Asghedom, was shot and killed on March 31, 2019, outside a clothing store he owned in South Los Angeles, with the police soon attributing the attack to a personal dispute. Two days after the shooting, which also wounded two bystanders, Mr. Holder, then 29, turned himself in at a mental health clinic, his lawyer said at trial. Mr. Holder was then charged with first-degree murder, attempted murder and possession of a firearm by a felon. He pleaded not guilty and has since been held in lieu of $6.5 million bail.
At trial, Los Angeles County prosecutors have argued that Mr. Holder and the 33-year-old Hussle, two old acquaintances who belonged to the same street gang, had a chance encounter in a strip mall parking lot, during which the rapper mentioned neighborhood rumors that Mr. Holder had cooperated with law enforcement — “a very serious offense” in the gang world. Minutes later, prosecutors and witnesses have said, Mr. Holder returned with two handguns and began firing repeatedly.
Prosecutors argued that the killing was premeditated, and charged Mr. Holder with first-degree murder. Aaron Jansen, a public defender representing Mr. Holder, has acknowledged during the trial that his client pulled the trigger. But he argued that the crime occurred in the “heat of passion” and that Mr. Holder should have been charged with voluntary manslaughter.
On Thursday, after Judge H. Clay Jacke read a lengthy set of instructions to the jury delineating the distinctions between first-degree murder, second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter, the lawyers gave their closing arguments.
John McKinney, the prosecutor, began his closing arguments with another tribute to Hussle’s place in the community — the life he lived, rather than the way he died.
“When some people get successful, they leave their neighborhoods, they change their address,” he said. “This man was different. He invested in the neighborhood.”
Mr. Jansen, in his closing arguments, also nodded to Hussle’s stature in the community, but suggested that his fame had made his encounter with Mr. Holder all the more upsetting.
“Eric’s state of mind is: ‘I’m in this group, I grew up with them in the neighborhood, and now Nipsey Hussle is outing me as a snitch,’” Mr. Jansen said.
As Mr. Jansen continued his speech, Mr. McKinney objected multiple times. Judge Jacke asked the two men to approach. At one point the judge appeared to get exasperated and called an impromptu recess
Here is what else to know about the case.
Who was Nipsey Hussle?
A workmanlike rapper with underground credentials and an A-list network of supporters, Hussle was more than 15 years into his music career when he released his proper debut album in 2018.
Before the Grammy-nominated “Victory Lap,” Hussle had built a career that was richer in industry respect and good will than hit records, though he collaborated widely with artists like Snoop Dogg, Drake and Rick Ross. Known for his independent business ethos and novel marketing ideas, like the limited-edition $100 mixtape “Crenshaw,” Hussle had partnered near the end of his life with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation management company as he eyed a move toward the mainstream.
A self-proclaimed member of the Rollin’ 60s Crips, Hussle had also made a name for himself as a community ambassador and an entrepreneur in his South Los Angeles neighborhood. While seeking to stem gang violence in the area, he preached Black empowerment through business ownership, reinvesting his earnings as a musician in the place where he grew up.
With a group of backers, Hussle had bought the strip mall at the corner of Crenshaw Boulevard and Slauson Avenue that housed his Marathon clothing store, while also helping to open a nearby co-working space dedicated to increasing diversity in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
At the same time, even as Hussle was praised after his death as an inspirational neighborhood fixture and a peacemaker, his properties were the subject of a longstanding investigation by the Los Angeles Police Department and the city attorney’s office, which considered the area a Rollin’ 60s gang stronghold.
Some 20,000 people attended Hussle’s public memorial at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, where a statement from President Barack Obama highlighted the rapper’s life as “a legacy worth celebrating.”
What happened on the day of the shooting?
That Sunday afternoon, according to court testimony, Hussle arrived at the shopping plaza for an unannounced visit, as he often did. While catching up with neighborhood friends and employees in the parking lot in front of his Marathon store, Hussle spent about half an hour signing autographs and posing for photos with fans.
At the same time, a woman Mr. Holder was casually dating was driving him around the area just to hang out, the woman testified. The woman, whose identity was initially kept secret to protect her from threats and harassment, was identified at trial as Bryannita Nicholson. As they stopped to get something to eat, Ms. Nicholson noticed Hussle outside the store and remarked in passing that he looked handsome, she said. Mr. Holder did not indicate that he knew the rapper, but approached him for a brief conversation after ordering chili cheese fries at a nearby burger place while Ms. Nicholson waited in the car.
The brief conversation between the two men was casual and low-key, according to witness testimony, but included Hussle telling Mr. Holder that there were rumors going around that he had cooperated with law enforcement, or snitched. Hussle encouraged Mr. Holder to “get the paperwork” showing he had not in order to clear things up, Mr. McKinney, the Los Angeles County deputy district attorney, said.
“It just seemed like a regular conversation,” Mr. McKinney told the jury. “But obviously it wasn’t.”
As the men finished speaking, Ms. Nicholson approached Hussle for a selfie, which she soon posted to Facebook, she testified. Asked if she sensed that a fight was about to occur, Ms. Nicholson said, “No, I wasn’t afraid at all.”
Upon returning to the car, Mr. Holder told her to pull into another nearby parking lot so he could eat his fries, she said. She saw him loading a 9-millimeter pistol, she testified, and after taking a few bites of his food, he walked back toward Hussle’s store. According to witnesses, Mr. Holder confronted the rapper and said, “You’re through” as he opened fire with a gun in each hand, hitting Hussle at least 10 times and then kicking him twice in the head.
“You got me,” Hussle said, according to the prosecutor. Two other men, Kerry Lathan and Shermi Villanueva, were wounded by the gunfire.
How was Eric Holder identified as the suspect?
Recognized in the neighborhood as another member of the Rollin’ 60s Crips, Mr. Holder was better known by his nickname, a descriptive epithet. Surveillance footage captured the shooting, in addition to the car he used to flee the scene, and the police soon publicized the information. Upon seeing her vehicle on the news, Ms. Nicholson submitted to a five-hour interview with police officers, along with searches of her car and her mother’s home, where Mr. Holder had spent the night of the shooting before moving to hide out at a Motel 6.
Ms. Nicholson testified that she had heard the gunshots but was confused about what had occurred until she saw coverage of Hussle’s death online. When Mr. Holder first returned to the car, she recalled during grand jury testimony in 2019, “He’s like, ‘Drive, drive, before I slap you.’” The woman declined to press him on the specifics of what happened out of fear, she said.
That Tuesday, two days after the shooting, Mr. Holder was arrested without incident in Bellflower, Calif. The murder weapons were never found.
Ms. Nicholson later agreed to immunity from prosecution in exchange for her testimony at trial.
What is Mr. Holder’s defense?
Mr. Holder was originally represented by Chris Darden, a lawyer perhaps best known as one of the prosecutors in the 1995 trial of O.J. Simpson. But Mr. Darden soon withdrew from the case, citing death threats against his family. Instead, Mr. Holder has been represented at trial by Mr. Jansen, the public defender, who has not disputed that Mr. Holder was the shooter, but argued instead that the case was “overcharged.”
Mr. Jansen said in court that Mr. Holder was “so enraged” over the allegations of snitching that he returned nine minutes later “without thinking” and began shooting “without premeditation.” He has argued that instead of first-degree premeditated murder, Mr. Holder should have been charged with voluntary manslaughter “because he acted in the heat of passion.”
He added that Mr. Holder had no intent to harm Mr. Lathan and Mr. Villanueva, and therefore should not have been charged with attempted murder. Mr. Holder faces life in prison.
‘Snitching’ has loomed over the trial
In addition to being the agreed-upon motive in the shooting of Hussle, the concept of snitching — and its outsize importance in gang culture — has affected court testimony in the case, as well. While Mr. Holder has been identified by multiple witnesses as the shooter, others have declined to detail their recollections of the incident on the stand; one witness failed to appear, with lawyers on both sides citing a reluctance to testify for fear of retribution.
Even one of the victims of the shooting appeared reticent at the trial. Mr. Lathan, who was wounded in the incident, declined to identify Mr. Holder as the shooter while on the stand. “I don’t know nothing, don’t see nothing,” he said, according to news reports.
“You don’t want to testify about what happened?” the prosecutor asked.
“That’s right,” Mr. Lathan said.
Cedric Washington, a Los Angeles police detective, said the problem was common, even outside of gang cases. “I’ve found that a majority of people are reluctant to come to court or talk to law enforcement,” he said on the stand. “Everybody seems to think that from coming to court, they are going to be subject to retaliation.”
The post Nipsey Hussle Murder Trial: What to Know, After Closing Arguments appeared first on New York Times.