The Woldemariams’ life, once single-mindedly focused on pursuing the American dream, now centers on a small downtown courtroom where they seek justice for their slain son and brother, Philip.
Philip Woldemariam, 20, was shot to death in a West Los Angeles park in 1993. A rich and famous rapper, Calvin Broadus (Snoop Doggy Dogg) and his bodyguard, McKinley Lee, are on trial for the murder.
The Broadus-Lee legal team says that Woldemariam was reaching for a gun tucked in his waistband when Lee shot him in self defense. Prosecutors and their witnesses tell the story differently. They say that Woldemariam was shot in the back as he fled from Lee and Broadus’ vehicle. The coroner’s office reported bullet wounds in the back and the buttocks.
Philip Woldemariam’s family, Ethiopian immigrants, are a powerful presence in the courtroom each day. They listen closely, stoic, as witnesses recount Philip’s death, and the defense portrays him as a gunslinging gangbanger.
Family members say they have received threats. They moved from one house after hearing prowlers in the alley and noticing new graffiti on the wall. Two of them are troubled with nightmares. A sister furtively wrote her phone number in my notebook, rather than telling it to me in the crowded courthouse hallway.
This was not the way the Woldemariams thought it would be when they moved here more than 15 years ago from Ethiopia, a land torn by violent civil war. Here, as he was there, Woldemariam Ghilamariam is a building contractor. His last name is different from that of his family because, according to Ethiopian tradition, his wife and children use his first name as their last name.
These days, the Woldemariams serve as a reminder that every murder, every violent crime, leaves survivors who are battered and broken.
The family moved here to escape violence, to improve the children’s education and to obtain proper medical care for Philip, who suffered from diabetes. “Ironically, one of the reasons we came to the United States was to save Philip’s life,” said his brother, Yohannas, an engineer. “Then he died here.”
Philip’s sister, Sophia, who left her atmospheric science studies at UCLA during the trial, interrupted. He didn’t just die, she said in an unforgiving voice, “he was murdered.”
I talked to the family Friday in a conference room in the district attorney’s office.
Another sister, Zee, a nurse, was also present, as was the mother, Kidusan. Zee often put her head in her hands during the interview, rubbing her brow as if in pain.
I asked Woldemariam Ghilamariam what he thought of the criminal trial process here.
He is a dignified, stern-looking man, deferred to by his wife and children. He speaks slowly, as if considering the implications of every word.
“From what we have seen, the justice system favors the rich criminals,” he said.
The fact that Broadus and Lee are out on bail makes him angry. In Ethiopia, he said, you didn’t see accused murderers “walking the streets but here, especially if you have the money, you are free to walk the streets . . . it appears to us, after all this trouble, that the justice system is run for the criminals. Our only hope is that the jury sees the injustice and delivers the right verdict.”
They reminded me of the Goldmans and Browns, the survivors in the O.J. Simpson case.
I asked him why the family is pursuing the case with such intensity, both by attending each court session and by pressing for civil damages against Broadus and Lee. It won’t bring back their son, I said.
“My feeling is that criminals must receive their due,” he said. “They must be punished. . . . They marked my son for cold-blooded murder. They executed him and they must receive justice, they must be punished. Victims of crimes like us must follow this thing through because if they don’t, then the criminal will get away with his crime.”
That’s not the way the defense sees it. Attorneys David Kenner and Donald Re call Philip Woldemariam a hot-tempered, armed member of a Palms-area gang known as the “By Yerself Hustlers,” who became enraged when Broadus moved into his neighborhood. When Lee shot Woldemariam, Kenner said, he was just doing his job as a bodyguard.
Skilled in the media tactics of modern criminal law, Kenner and Re waste no opportunity to sell this version to the jury, and to reporters. Media coverage has focused on the famous rapper defendant.
“In the last two years, we have seen the systematic demonization of Philip,” said brother Yohannas Woldemariam. “I will be very frank with you. This wouldn’t have happened if we had been Europeans or white Americans. This happened because we are African immigrants.”
After talking to them, I was moved by the tragedy suffered by this close-knit family, still wedded to the traditional values of their ancient homeland.
Now angry, sad and tormented, they have joined Los Angeles’ growing ranks of survivors of murder victims, pursuing that elusive quality known as justice.