More than three years after the fatal shooting of rapper Nipsey Hussle, a proudly local Los Angeles artist whose murder reverberated far beyond the West Coast hip-hop world, the trial of the accused shooter, Eric R Holder Jr., ended with a murder conviction on Wednesday.
Hussle, real name Ermias Asghedom, was fatally shot on March 31, 2019 outside a clothing store he owned in South Los Angeles, with police quickly blaming the attack on a personal dispute. Two days after the shooting, which also injured two bystanders, Mr Holder, then 29, checked himself into a mental health clinic, his trial attorney said. Mr Holder was later charged with first degree murder, attempted murder and possession of a firearm by a felon. He pleaded not guilty and was held in lieu of $6.5 million bond.
At trial, Los Angeles County prosecutors argued that Mr. Holder and Hussle, 33, two old acquaintances who belonged to the same street gang, had a chance meeting in a mall parking lot, during from which the rapper had mentioned neighborhood rumors. that Mr Holder had cooperated with law enforcement – “a very serious offence” in the gang world. Minutes later, according to prosecutors and witnesses, Mr. Holder returned with two handguns and began firing repeatedly.
Prosecutors argued the murder was premeditated and charged Mr Holder with first-degree murder. Aaron Jansen, a public defender representing Mr Holder, admitted during the trial that his client pulled the trigger. But he argued the crime happened in the ‘fire of passion’ and Mr Holder should have been charged with intentional homicide.
After meeting for less than an hour on a second day of deliberations, the jury’s decision said the panel agreed with prosecutors that Mr. Holder made the decision to kill Hussle as he returned to a car, loaded a gun, took a few bites of fries, then walked back through the parking lot to confront the rapper.
Mr Holder, 32 years old, could face 25 years to life in prison. He will be sentenced on September 15.
When the judge, H. Clay Jacke, asked Mr. Holder if he would waive his right to be sentenced sooner, he replied, “Yes, your honor,” quietly. It was the only time his voice was audible in court on Wednesday.
He was also found guilty of two counts of attempted voluntary manslaughter, stemming from the two bystanders who were injured in the shooting, lesser charges than the counts of attempted murder that prosecutors had brought. Mr Jansen had argued that the case was overloaded and that his client had no specific intention of harming either of the other two men, who were both strangers to him, when he attacked Hussle .
Additionally, Holder was convicted of felony possession of a firearm and two counts of assault with a deadly weapon.
In court, Mr. Holder stared straight ahead, unflinching. He wore a dark navy suit and white sneakers. There was no noise in the courtroom when the verdict was announced – no reaction from the half-full gallery.
Here’s what else you need to know about the case.
Who was Nipsey Hussle?
A professional rapper with underground credentials and a prominent fan network, Hussle had over 15 years into his music career when he released his debut album in 2018.
Prior to the Grammy-nominated “Victory Lap”, Hussle had built a career richer in industry respect and goodwill than hit records, though he collaborated extensively with artists like Snoop Dogg, Drake and Rick Ross. Known for his independent entrepreneurship and innovative marketing ideas, such as the $100 limited-edition mixtape “Crenshaw,” Hussle had teamed up late in his life with Jay-Z’s management company Roc Nation then that he was considering heading to the general public.
A self-proclaimed member of the Rollin’ 60s Crips, Hussle had also made a name for himself as a community ambassador and entrepreneur in his South Los Angeles neighborhood. While seeking to stem gang violence in the region, he preached black empowerment through business ownership, reinvesting his earnings as a musician back to where he grew up.
Along with a group of backers, Hussle had purchased the mall at the corner of Crenshaw Boulevard and Slauson Avenue that housed his Marathon clothing store, while helping to open a nearby coworking space dedicated to increasing diversity in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
At the same time, even though Hussle was hailed after his death as an inspirational part of the neighborhood and a peacemaker, his properties have been the subject of a long-running investigation by the Los Angeles Police Department and the Office of the city attorney, who considered the area a rollin’ stronghold of ’60s gangs.
What happened on the day of filming?
That Sunday afternoon, according to court testimony, Hussle arrived at the mall for an unannounced visit, as he often did. While catching up with friends and neighborhood employees in the parking lot outside 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 neighborhood just to hang out, the woman said. 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 for a bite to eat, Ms Nicholson noticed Hussle outside the store and casually remarked that he was handsome, she said. Mr Holder did not say he knew the rapper, but approached him for a quick chat after ordering chili and cheese fries from a nearby burger joint while Ms Nicholson waited in the car.
The brief conversation between the two men was casual and low-key, according to testimony, but Hussle told Mr Holder there were rumors he had cooperated with law enforcement or had spoken out. Hussle encouraged Mr. Holder to “get the documents” showing he hadn’t in order to clear things up, said John McKinney, the assistant Los Angeles County prosecutor.
“It felt like a regular conversation,” Mr. McKinney told the jury. “But obviously it wasn’t.”
As the men finished talking, Ms Nicholson approached Hussle for a selfie, which she quickly posted on Facebook, she testified. Asked if she felt a fight was about to happen, Ms Nicholson replied: “No, I wasn’t scared at all.”
On his way back to the car, Mr Holder told him to park in another car park nearby so he could eat his fries, she said. She saw him load a 9mm pistol, she testified, and after taking a few bites of his food, he walked back to Hussle’s store. Witnesses say Mr Holder confronted the rapper and said ‘You’re done’ as he opened fire with a gun in each hand, punching 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 injured by the gunfire.
How was Eric Holder identified as a suspect?
Recognized around 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 police quickly released the information. Seeing her vehicle on the news, Ms Nicholson submitted to a five-hour interview with police, as well as 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 heard the shots but was confused as to what happened until she saw coverage of Hussle’s death online. When Mr. Holder first got back in the car, she recalled during grand jury testimony in 2019, “He’s like, ‘Drive, drive, before I slap you.'” She refused to press him on the details of what happened out of fear, she said.
That Tuesday, two days after the shooting, Mr. Holder was arrested without incident in Bellflower, California. The murder weapons were never found.
Ms Nicholson later agreed to immunity from prosecution in exchange for her testimony at trial.
What was 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 OJ Simpson trial. But Mr Darden quickly withdrew from the case, citing death threats against his family. Instead, Mr. Holder was represented at trial by Mr. Jansen, the public defender, who did not dispute that Mr. Holder was the shooter, but instead argued that the case was “overloaded”.
Mr Jansen told the court that Mr Holder was ‘so enraged’ by the snitch allegations that he returned nine minutes later ‘without thinking’ and started shooting ‘without premeditation’. He 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 intention of harming Mr. Lathan and Mr. Villanueva and therefore should not have been charged with attempted murder. Mr. Holder faces life imprisonment.
‘Snitching’ loomed over the trial
In addition to being the agreed motive in the shooting of Hussle, the concept of a snitch — and its outsized importance in gang culture — also affected court testimony in the case. While Mr. Holder was identified by several witnesses as the shooter, others declined to detail their recollections of the incident on the stand; one witness did not appear, with lawyers for both parties citing reluctance to testify for fear of reprisals.
Even one of the shooting victims was reluctant during the trial. Mr. Lathan, who was injured in the incident, refused to identify Mr. Holder as the shooter while he was on the stand. “I don’t know anything, I don’t see anything,” he said, according to dispatches.
“You don’t want to testify to what happened? asked the prosecutor.
“It’s true,” Mr. Lathan said.
Cedric Washington, an LAPD 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. “Everyone seems to think that by coming to court they are going to be retaliated against.”
Dana Feldman contributed reporting from Los Angeles.