Lawyers in the Snoop Doggy Dogg murder trial wrestled Thursday with a key question that could determine whether the rap star is convicted of a ruthless killing or acquitted on the grounds of self-defense: Was the victim shot in the back or the side?
The prosecution attempted to show that victim Philip Woldemariam was fatally shot in the lower left back as he tried to run after a confrontation with the rapper, also known as Calvin Broadus, and his bodyguard at a Westside park in 1993.
The defense, meanwhile, maintained that bodyguard McKinley Lee shot Woldemariam in the left side--or the flank--in the split-second after he reached for his gun and then turned.
The two sides spent Thursday morning peppering Pedro Ortiz, a Los Angeles County deputy medical examiner, with questions about the location of the fatal gunshot wound--and whether it was technically on the side or the back.
"It would be more accurate to say the entry wound is on the left lower back," Ortiz said, adding that he had to turn the body on its stomach to see the wound.
But he acknowledged that he had referred to the location of the entry wound in his autopsy report as the "lateral" portion of the body.
"Is it the side of the body?" defense attorney Donald Re asked.
Ortiz responded: "In common, everyday language, lateral would be the side of the body."
It is not a new dilemma: The back-or-side question has colored a number of high-profile killings, usually involving police. In July, the Los Angeles Police Department was criticized by Latino activists for shooting a Lincoln Heights teenager, who police claimed had a gun.
The activists say the boy clearly was shot in the back. The police--supported by the county coroner's office--said the youth was shot in the side, spinning him around as subsequent shots struck him from behind.
At a press briefing shortly after the shooting, Police Chief Willie L. Williams characterized the teen's wounds as "consistent with being shot with a gun in your hand [and] having basically begun to turn."
Coroner's office spokesman Scott Carrier added: "We don't want the public to think this young boy was completely turned around and shot in the back."
The Los Angeles Police Commission also ruled last year that two officers acted within department policy when they shot a 27-year-old woman who was babbling incoherently and threatening her 3-year-old son with a knife.
The case sparked intense publicity when autopsy reports revealed that the woman, whom officers contended attacked them head-on, had seven bullet wounds in her back. Prosecutors looking into the matter later determined that the fusillade of shots could have spun the woman's body as she fell, causing her to be hit in the back.
Watching with interest the outcome of such police-involved shootings, defense attorneys in the Snoop Doggy Dogg case have sought to subpoena Williams to testify about the back-versus-side issue, particularly in the case of the Lincoln Heights teenager. But so far, their efforts have been unsuccessful in securing a statement from the chief.
So, trying to make their point to the jury, they questioned Ortiz at length. Defense attorney Marcia A. Morrissey presented the deputy medical examiner with half a dozen reports, filled out by medical personnel at the hospital where Woldemariam, 20, died on Aug. 25, 1993.
All the reports had stated that the victim had been fatally shot in the "flank." But Ortiz retorted: "It is more accurate to call it the left back."
He also testified that the bullet traveled from the bottom of the victim's left back to the top his right back--perforating his left kidney, his aorta, his liver and his right lung, before coming to rest below his right shoulder. Woldemariam also suffered a non-fatal gunshot wound in the buttocks.
Ortiz told the jury that the bullet did not cross into the front portion of the victim's body. That point is important to defense attorneys because they say it shows that the fatal bullet traveled from one side of the victim's body to the other, and not from back to front.
"We are trying to dispel the prosecution's propaganda that the shooting was not in self-defense," Morrissey said.
The prosecution, however, scoffed at the the defense's theory.
"Once you boil all this down, the victim obviously wasn't facing the defendant at the time he was shot," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Bobby Grace, co-prosecutor on the case.
Ortiz is expected to take the stand again Jan. 3, when the trial resumes after the holiday break.
Broadus and Lee are charged with murder in connection with the 1993 shooting at Woodbine Park in the Palms area. The prosecution says Lee pulled the trigger in what they have called a gang-related drive-by shooting, with Broadus at the wheel. The two men remain free on bail.