Marion "Suge" Knight, who built Death Row Records from scratch into the nation's top rap label, was sentenced to nine years in state prison Friday by a judge who said that despite Knight's soaring success, there was a "danger element" to the rap mogul.
The sentence--issued after a daylong hearing that featured a rambling 15-minute speech by Knight and glowing testimonials on his behalf from African American community activists--raises doubts about the future of Westwood-based Death Row.
The music production company had grown from nothing five years ago to an industry giant with more than $100 million in revenue this year, putting out albums that drew widespread attack for promoting violence and degrading women.
In his speech, Knight vowed that he would never again produce an album that contained the word "nigger." After serving the last four months behind bars in connection with a Sept. 7 fight at the MGM Grand hotel in Las Vegas--a scuffle deemed to be a violation of the probation he received after a 1992 assault--Knight said, "I'm more positive." He spoke of his many good works and vowed to do more.
But Los Angeles Superior Court Judge J. Stephen Czuleger replied: "I have to think not only of those you can help . . . but of potential victims out there." The judge noted that Knight has eight convictions. And, he said, Knight consistently has refused to "accept responsibility for [his] acts."
Adding that his only choices under the law were to return Knight to probation or to sentence him to state prison, Czuleger imposed the prison term.
"I can't trust you," the judge said. "I wish I could."
As Czuleger spoke, Knight displayed no emotion. Moments later, with the hearing over, a friend, Christi Love, 25, shouted, "We love you, Suge!"
Afterward, Knight's mother, Maxine, blasted the judge, calling him "prejudiced."
Earlier in the day, one of Knight's attorneys, David Chesnoff, summed up the frustration felt by Knight's supporters. It was little wonder, Chesnoff concluded, that "a lot of people in this community don't have faith in our system."
Meanwhile, a Death Row spokesman, George Pryce, promised that the company would keep going, but observers said Knight's sentence could finish Death Row.
Knight, 31, was deeply involved in its success, building it into the first rap label to consistently dominate the pop scene.
A nine-year sentence usually means about 4 1/2 years in state custody. Czuleger calculated that Knight had already served about a year. Knight is also serving three years of federal probation for a weapons violation in Las Vegas.
Under California law, a prison inmate cannot run a business. The law, however, does allow Knight to "assign authority for the operation of [his] business" to others.
The company has been struggling financially. In addition, Death Row faces a federal racketeering investigation.
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 jail pending a hearing on the probation violation. The hearing centered on the Sept. 7 fight at the MGM Grand in which a group of men pummeled reputed gang member Orlando Anderson, 22, of Lakewood. Among the assailants was rapper Tupac Shakur, who was fatally wounded a few hours later as he sat in a car driven by Knight. Knight also had been present at the scuffle.
On Nov. 26, Czuleger, who had taken over the case, ruled that Knight was an "active participant" in the scuffle. He revoked Knight's probation and sent him to state prison for a 90-day "diagnostic examination."