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Best, Worst of Times for Eminem

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two days after rapper Eminem enjoyed the most shining moment to date in his controversial and young career by receiving a Grammy nomination for best album, prosecutors in Michigan restated their intention to put the superstar behind bars, suggesting that Eminem’s most important looming contest is one that does not involve trophies.

The rapper--born Marshall Mathers III--faces felony assault and weapons charges in two Michigan counties, and in one of those jurisdictions, Macomb County, the prosecutor has pledged to seek “significant jail time.”

And, with the controversial star due to face a Macomb judge on Valentine’s Day to possibly enter a plea, he could attend the Grammys on Feb. 21 at Staples Center under the shadow of a possible sentencing hearing.

William Harding, chief of operations for the Macomb County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, said Friday that “the nature of the offense, the fact that it involved a weapon, that means we will ask for some incarceration.” If Eminem pleads guilty on Feb. 14, as expected by many observers, he would return to court to be sentenced some time in March or perhaps April.

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It has often been said that Eminem follows in the footsteps of rebellious pop-rock stars--such as Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones and Madonna--who became heroes to youth and moral villains to many parents. Now, the rapper is joining another long lineage: music stars who have run afoul of the law.

The fallout varies. Chuck Berry’s career was badly wounded in 1961 when he was sentenced to 20 months in jail for transporting an underage girl across state lines, but the Doors’ Jim Morrison’s 1969 arrest for indecent exposure only reinforced his lusty Lizard King persona.

In the modern era, rappers have become criminal defendants so frequently that it generally makes headlines not as news, but as more fodder for culture critics who say the music glorifies the thug life, drugs and guns.

And Eminem, of course, is the new favorite target of activists and concerned parents, as evidenced by the angry phone calls that jammed lines at the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences moments after Eminem’s best album nomination was announced Wednesday. Many of those callers would be thrilled if Eminem is behind bars on the big night.

The rapper faces charges of assault with a deadly weapon and carrying a concealed weapon that stem from an alleged June 4 attack on a man seen kissing Eminem’s wife at a nightclub in Warren, Mich. Eminem is accused of hitting the man with an unloaded gun. If found guilty, the maximum prison sentence would be five years.

He also faces a felony and misdemeanor gun charge in nearby Oakland County for another alleged June 4 confrontation, this one with an associate of the rival rap duo Insane Clown Posse. That case also carries a maximum sentence of five years, but the prosecutor has said a guilty plea will likely lead only to probation.

That is not the case, however, in Macomb County, where prosecutor Carl Malinga was quoted in the Detroit Free-Press saying he would be “asking the judge to consider jail time of six months to one year.” The prosecutor did not return calls to be interviewed for this story.

Eminem attorney Brian Legghio says the sentence Malinga cited would far exceed the standard punishment for first-time offenders who are found guilty of similar offenses in the jurisdiction. Eminem has no criminal record.

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“That statement was made by a prosecutor who was running for reelection in November, and I have no doubt that statement was part of his campaign rhetoric,” Legghio said. “He selected a defendant and targeted him completely for who he was, which cuts against the grain of the rights of due process and to a fair trial.”

First-Time Offender

The state sentencing guidelines list between zero and 17 months of jail time as a suggested sentencing window for judges, Legghio says, but it’s “not uncommon” for a sentence of probation for a first-time offender such as Eminem.

Stephen Rabaut, past president of the Macomb County Bar Assn., said that as he surveys the case from a distance he doesn’t see jail time as a likely result.

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“In either county, in my opinion, Mr. Mathers would not serve jail time for these offenses and nor should he,” Rabaut said. “I represented people in harsher situations who did not. In 10 cases similar to this you would see this pled out to misdemeanor in a lower court.”

Prosecutors in both Oakland and Macomb counties have said they will not consider plea bargains that would downgrade the charges and quickly resolve the cases.

There is also pressure on defense attorneys to not take the Macomb case to a jury trial. Malinga chose not to file a charge of using a firearm in a felony, an enhancement that would raise the stakes considerably--with a conviction, that offense calls for a mandatory two-year prison sentence on its own.

The possibility that prosecutors could still file that extra charge puts pressure on Eminem’s lawyers to enter a guilty plea instead of opting for a trial that might introduce the wild-card element of star-struck jurors deciding the rapper’s guilt or innocence.

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That star power was on full display during Eminem’s earlier court appearances in the Michigan cases, when giddy teens snapped his picture and young fans--some brought by their parents--cheered the rapper’s name outside the courthouse.

About 8 million fans have scooped up copies of Eminem’s “The Marshall Mathers LP,” and legions of music critics have lauded it as a raw, satirical masterpiece. But the album is also reviled in many quarters for profanity-laced lyrics with graphic violent and sexual images, and Eminem has been accused of advocating violence toward women and gays.

The former view was given a big boost with the Grammy nods announced Wednesday, which include a best album nomination that will see “Mathers” vie against works by Beck, Paul Simon, Steely Dan and Radiohead.

Geoff Mayfield, director of charts for Billboard, said that arrests seem to have little effect on the popularity of rap artists because the genre is so steeped in a gritty street experience.

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Jay-Z, DMX, Snoop Dogg and the late Tupac Shakur are just some of the rappers who have faced criminal charges but did not seem to suffer any ill effects with their fan base.

“Tupac was the first artist to debut at No. 1 on the charts while serving time,” Mayfield notes. “In that case and with others, [legal troubles] have either been a non-factor or even helped by stirring up some interest. This is not exactly an audience offended by nefarious activities.”

Sometimes the criminal cases do complicate the career pursuits for other reasons.

Public Opinion

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Sean “Puffy” Combs, for instance, is scheduled to appear in court Jan. 17 to face weapons charges in New York that carry a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison. The case stems from a 1999 shooting at a Times Square nightclub where three people were injured, and a Combs associate has been indicted for attempted murder.

That case and an unrelated, high-profile assault charge did not seem to help or hurt the album sales of Combs--observers agree that those sales were sliding because of bad reviews and loss of connection with fans--but they have created a volatile situation with Combs’ other job: A conviction could have a devastating effect on the entrepreneur’s future at Bertelsmann Music Group, where he operates a joint venture label with BMG’s Arista division.

Sources inside BMG have said the German entertainment conglomerate will probably sever ties with Combs’ Bad Boy Records if he is convicted. Even if the record label weathered a conviction, Combs would legally not be able to operate Bad Boy from prison.

So while criminal charges may not hurt rappers in the court of public opinion, industry insiders say it’s a whole different matter in the world of boardrooms and bottom lines.

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“It’s all a terrible nuisance to the record labels,” says Bill Adler, a media consultant who was publicity director for rap-pioneering Def Jam Records from 1984 through 1990. “I think fans are essentially indifferent to it if they pay attention at all, but it’s a headache for the labels. It isn’t good for business.”


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