Los Angeles Superior Court Judge J. Stephen Czuleger's ruling could imperil the future of Death Row Records, the nation's top rap label. Knight, who co-founded the company and is intimately involved in its operations, now faces up to nine years in state prison--where authorities say he would be forbidden from conducting business.
Czuleger said he was "inclined" to send Knight to prison for the full nine years--the term Knight had been facing for a 1992 assault. With customary credits for good behavior, a nine-year sentence usually means about 4 1/2 years in state custody.
But first, the judge said, he needed a full report on Knight's background. He sent Knight to state custody for a three-month "diagnostic evaluation" and ordered him back to court Feb. 28 for sentencing.
"He has a history of violence," Czuleger said from the bench. "I am concerned about those people in the community who are potential victims."
Knight, 31, absorbed the ruling without showing emotion. As he was being led out of the courtroom by sheriff's deputies, a woman in the crowd, one of about two dozen supporters on hand Tuesday, shouted to him, "I love you!"
The beefy record executive turned, smiled wanly and said, "All right."
Knight, who co-founded Death Row four years ago, built it into the first rap label to consistently dominate the pop scene--including the top two albums on this week's charts. Death Row's albums are distributed by Westwood-based Interscope Records, which is half-owned by MCA.
Several Death Row stars and executives have been associated with violence. Among them: rappers Snoop Doggy Dogg, whose real name is Calvin Broadus and who was acquitted of murder this year, and Tupac Shakur, fatally wounded in Las Vegas in a car driven by Knight just a couple of hours after the scuffle at the MGM Grand.
Federal authorities are investigating Death Row and Knight, trying to determine if the company is being run as a criminal enterprise.
Knight's rap sheet features eight criminal convictions, one under an alias, according to Deputy Dist. Atty. William Hodgman.
Knight is also serving three years federal probation for a weapons violation in Las Vegas. A probation violation hearing in that case is set for Dec. 16 in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles.
The case before Czuleger stems from a 1992 assault on two aspiring rappers in a Hollywood studio. Under a plea bargain struck in February 1995, Knight entered no-contest pleas to two counts of assault. Judge John Ouderkirk suspended a nine-year prison term and imposed five years probation.
On Oct. 22, Ouderkirk sent Knight to Los Angeles County Jail pending the probation violation hearing. The next week Ouderkirk bowed out and Czuleger took over the case.
While in County Jail, Knight has been able to continue running Death Row. His cell was equipped with a pay phone, it was disclosed this week in court, and sources said he has used it frequently to help complete two albums.
Sources also said that inmates took the opportunity to perform impromptu cellblock auditions for Knight--apparently hoping, as in the apocryphal story involving Lana Turner at Schwab's Drug Store, they too would be "discovered."
In state custody, however, Knight would be no mogul.
"Mr. Knight will be kept in a regular cell just like any other inmate--without a phone," said Angela Dawson, a Department of Corrections spokeswoman.