More than three years after the fatal shooting of rapper Nipsey Hussle, whose 2019 killing in front of the local clothing store he owned scarred the South Los Angeles neighborhood he had devoted his adult life to championing, a jury Wednesday found Eric R. Holder Jr. guilty of first-degree murder in the case. The verdict closes a painful chapter in recent hip-hop history.
At trial, prosecutors described the gunman as an embittered acquaintance who had belonged to the same gang as Hussle but felt disrespected by him during a parking lot run-in.
That Holder pulled the trigger was not in dispute in court. His own public defender and multiple witnesses identified him as the assailant who fired toward Hussle with two handguns, hitting the rapper at least 10 times before kicking him in the head.
But Holder’s legal team had argued that the case was overcharged. Aaron Jansen, the public defender representing Holder, said that the killing was not premeditated and instead occurred in the “heat of passion,” about nine minutes after a conversation in which Hussle invoked neighborhood rumors that Holder had cooperated with law enforcement, or snitched, a serious offense in the gang world, and urged him to clear things up.
Holder should have been charged with voluntary manslaughter, his lawyer said.
After meeting for less than an hour on its second day of deliberations, the jury decided to find Holder guilty of first-degree murder, indicating that it agreed with Los Angeles county prosecutors that Holder had made the decision to kill Hussle as he returned to a car after their initial talk, loaded a gun, took a few bites of french fries and then marched back through the parking lot to confront the rapper.
Holder, 32, could face life in prison. He will be sentenced at a later date.
He was also found guilty of two counts of attempted voluntary manslaughter, stemming from the two bystanders who were wounded in the shooting, lesser charges than the attempted murder counts that prosecutors had brought.
Holder’s lawyer argued that his client had no specific intention of harming either of the wounded men, both of whom were strangers to him, when he attacked Hussle outside the Marathon Clothing shop in the Crenshaw neighborhood where the rapper and his assailant grew up.
In addition, Holder was found guilty of possessing a firearm as a felon and two counts of assault with a deadly weapon.
In court, Holder stared forward, unflinching. He wore a dark navy suit and white sneakers. There was no sound in the courtroom as the verdict was announced – no reaction from the half-full gallery.
Hussle, whose real name was Ermias Joseph Asghedom, was mourned widely after his death at 33 as a principled artist and entrepreneur who transcended his early years as a member of the local Rollin’ 60s Crips, emerging as a hard-boiled, motivational lyricist and community ambassador. His public memorial in April 2019, at what was then known as the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles, drew some 20,000 admirers, including Stevie Wonder and Snoop Dogg. In a letter read aloud, former President Barack Obama called the rapper’s life “a legacy worth celebrating.”
Although not a commercial hitmaker for most of his career, Hussle was known for his extensive industry connections and independent business sense, having sold music on his own terms – including the limited-edition $100 mixtape “Crenshaw” – for 15 years before releasing his major label debut, “Victory Lap,” in 2018. A Grammy nomination for best rap album and a management partnership with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation near the end of his life had the rapper poised for a move deeper into the mainstream.
Along the way, Hussle had also preached Black empowerment through business and education, investing his winnings as a musician in the neighborhood where he was raised. With a group of backers, Hussle purchased the strip mall at the corner of Crenshaw Boulevard and Slauson Avenue that housed his Marathon store, while also helping to open a nearby coworking space dedicated to increasing diversity in science and technology.
On the Sunday afternoon that Hussle was killed, he had stopped by the shopping plaza for an unannounced visit, as he often did, according to court testimony. While catching up with friends and employees in the parking lot, Hussle spent about a half-hour signing autographs and posing for photos with fans.
At that time, a woman Holder had been casually dating was driving him around the area, that woman, Bryannita Nicholson, testified. A key witness for the prosecution who said that she had transported Holder to and from the scene of the shooting, Nicholson was granted immunity from prosecution for her appearance in court.
When Nicholson pulled into the plaza so that Holder could get something to eat, she spotted Hussle in the parking lot and remarked in passing that he looked handsome, she said on the stand. After ordering fries nearby, Holder, a fellow member of the Rollin’ 60s Crips, approached Hussle for a brief conversation while Nicholson waited in the car, she said.
The encounter between the two men was casual and low-key, according to witness testimony. But prosecutors said Hussle told Holder that there were rumors going around the neighborhood that he had snitched. Hussle encouraged Holder to “get the paperwork” showing he had not, said John McKinney, the Los Angeles County deputy district attorney prosecuting the case.
“It just seemed like a regular conversation,” McKinney told the jury. “But obviously it wasn’t.” He called the pair “two men whose arcs in life were bending in different directions.”
In his closing arguments, Jansen, the defense lawyer, nodded to Hussle’s stature in the community, suggesting that the rapper’s fame had made his encounter with Holder, an aspiring musician, 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,’” Jansen said.
As the two men finished speaking, Nicholson said she overheard talk of snitching as she approached Hussle for a selfie, which she posted to Facebook. It would be the last photograph of the rapper. Asked in court if she sensed that a fight was about to occur, Nicholson said, “No, I wasn’t afraid at all.”
As Nicholson pulled into another nearby parking lot so Holder could eat, she testified, he pulled out a handgun and began loading it. He walked back toward Hussle’s store; a short time later, Nicholson heard gunshots.
According to witnesses, Holder had confronted the rapper outside and said, “You’re through” as he opened fire.
“You got me,” Hussle said, according to the prosecutor. Two men who were standing with Hussle, Kerry Lathan and Shermi Villanueva, were wounded by the shots.
In his opening statement, McKinney, the prosecutor, portrayed Nicholson as a kind of unwitting accomplice. “I think you’ll find in her a naivete, a simplicity,” he said. On the witness stand, Nicholson mostly answered questions with a calm “yes” or “I don’t know.” Holder mostly avoided her eyes or looked at her dispassionately as she testified.
When Holder got back into her car, Nicholson said, he told her to drive or he would slap her. That evening, she learned of Hussle’s death. But Nicholson said it wasn’t until more than a day after the shooting, when her mother recognized her white Chevrolet Cruze on the news, that she realized that Holder may have been involved.
McKinney emphasized that Nicholson quickly agreed to cooperate with police, allowing authorities access to data from her phone and submitting to hours of interviews. “I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, this is my reputation, too,’” she testified.
In addition to being the agreed-upon motive in the shooting, the concept of snitching – and its outsize importance in gang culture – loomed over the trial. While Holder was repeatedly identified as the gunman, lawyers on both sides cited some witnesses’ reluctance to testify in detail, or even show up to court, for fear of retribution.
“I don’t know nothing, don’t see nothing,” Lathan, who was wounded in the incident, said during his turn on the witness stand.
“You don’t want to testify about what happened?” the prosecutor asked.
“That’s right,” Lathan said.
Cedric Washington, a Los Angeles police detective, said the problem was common, even outside of gang cases. “Everybody seems to think that from coming to court, they are going to be subject to retaliation,” he testified.
But prosecutors did rely in part on the testimony of Herman Douglas, known as Cowboy, a onetime Rollin’ 60s member who worked at Hussle’s Marathon store.
Douglas testified that while he is no longer involved in gang life, he still vigilantly watches every car and person who crosses his path for signs they might be dangerous. At no point in Hussle’s conversation with Holder, he said, did he sense that the rapper was at risk. “I would’ve snatched him up out of there,” Douglas said.
When the defense questioned Douglas about whether there could be consequences as dire as “getting beat up or even killed” for snitching, Douglas said that was unlikely. He noted that his participation in the trial could be considered snitching by some. But things had changed since he was coming up in the neighborhood.
“I ain’t worried,” he said. “Maybe in the ’80s, yeah, but this is 2022.”
Last Tuesday, Holder was attacked while in custody, briefly delaying the final days of the trial. Jansen, his lawyer, said that his client had been punched in the face and “sliced with some kind of razor.” Holder received staples in the back of his head and was scanned for a concussion.
Because of the high-profile nature of the case, and because it hinged on questions about consequences for snitching, Jansen said his client should have been in protective custody.
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