The controversial hip-hop mogul Marion “Suge” Knight is facing a murder charge, millions in bail money and potentially 30 years in jail after a fatal hit-and-run incident already proving controversial itself.
The founder of Death Row Records surrendered to police early on Friday, 12 hours after fleeing the scene where he allegedly struck at least two men with his truck, killing one – a friend – following an argument on the set of the upcoming NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton.
Police arrested Knight, 49, on murder charges when he arrived at 3am, appearing calm, wearing sunglasses and clutching a bottle of water, at the Los Angeles county sheriff’s West Hollywood station. Bail was set at $2m.
With prior convictions for assault, plus parole violations and driving offences, the rap icon could face 30 years in jail if convicted of murder – a grim coda for a celebrity already long entangled with the law.
Knight’s attorney, James Blatt, said he accidentally ran over and killed his friend Terry Carter as Carter tried to break up a fight between Knight and the actor Cle “Bone” Sloan.
The lawyer claimed Knight was unaware he had struck anyone as he fled the scene, fearing for his safety. “He had no knowledge whatsoever he ran over anyone,” Blatt said. “There’s no damage to Mr Knight’s car.”
Blatt predicted Knight would walk free.
“The investigation is in the very beginning stages,” said Blatt said. “We anticipate him being exonerated.”
However, witnesses said the running over appeared deliberate, according to police. “Looks like he drove backwards and struck the victims and drove forwards and struck them again,” Lieutenant John Corina of the LA County sheriff’s department told reporters. “The people we talked to say it looked like it was an intentional act.”
“They got into some kind of verbal altercation and it escalated,” Corina said. “We are handling it like a homicide.”
The drama ignited social media, with people assailing and defending Knight, and sent gawkers to the parking lot at Tam’s Burgers, near Central and East Rosecrans avenues, to view the scene and trade theories as the case against Knight began.
Knight’s fate hinges on whether the district attorney will pursue murder or other charges. His lawyer, described by one courtroom observer as “clever and slick”, may seek a plea deal to avoid the case going to court.
The likeliest venue for a trial is Compton’s courthouse, a 14-storey structure with bullet holes and bullet-proof windows which overlooks a landscape of gritty bungalows and discount stores. Locals nicknamed it the “love court” because juries drawn from the poverty-stricken city are often sceptical of police testimony and sympathetic to defendants.
Knight, however, is a polarising figure who has straddled glitz and the underbelly of the hip-hop scene for years.
He co-founded Death Row Records with Dr Dre in 1991 and built it into a pioneering hip-hop label that dominated the music industry, overseeing artists like the rapper then known as Snoop Doggy Dogg. Despite commercial and critical success, Knight has been involved in numerous incidents that seemed to embody the violence depicted in many rap lyrics.
Knight arrived at the set of the NWA movie in the afternoon and reportedly became embroiled in an argument with crew members and cast. About 20 minutes later some of those involved in the row went to lunch at nearby Tam’s Burgers. Knight allegedly followed and struck at least two men with his red pickup.
Witnesses said there was an altercation with several men immediately beforehand. “To see the argument happen, it’s one thing,” Robert Smith, who was eating in the restaurant, told local radio SCPR. “Seeing the car incident, that was shocking.”
Blatt said his client acted in self-defence. “He was in the process of being physically assaulted by two men and in an effort to escape he unfortunately hit two [other] individuals. He was in his car trying to escape.” Blatt said that Carter, Knight’s friend, had arrived with him at the scene.
Knight fled and left his truck in a parking lot in Westwood, 20 miles north. Police sent out an alert that he was wanted on suspicion of homicide. Before a serious manhunt could get under way, Blatt told police his client would surrender.
Knight was at the wheel of a BMW in Las Vegas in 1996 when gunmen fatally shot his passenger, the rapper Tupac Shakur.
A year later, he was linked to the murder of another rapper, Notorious BIG, but jailed for violating probation terms from a separate assault case. Knight was released in 2001, only to be swiftly jailed again for violating parole after punching a parking-lot attendant outside a Hollywood nightclub.
In 2005 Knight was shot in the leg during an MTV awards pre-party in Miami. A year later he filed for bankruptcy and sold his Malibu mansion. In 2009 he was hospitalised after a fight at a hotel in Arizona.
Last year, Knight was shot six times ahead of another MTV award ceremony at a Hollywood nightclub party hosted by Chris Brown.
This article was written by Rory Carroll in Los Angeles, for theguardian.com on Friday 30th January 2015 20.06 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010