The tale of the rapper and the prosecutor is a twisted one now, bent into strange shapes by scandal, celebrity and murder music, but once it was a story of straight lines and simple roles.
When they first met in 1994, the rapper, Anerae Brown, was one of four gang members on trial for a spasm of early-morning violence that had left a grandmother dead in her home. The button-down Pete Harned was the star of the Sacramento County district attorney's office and savvy enough to know that he would win convictions if he could put the 17-year-old rapper's lurid music on trial as well.
The judge allowed Harned to play Brown's music twice in court. The music, recorded under the stage name X-Raided, was brash, explicit and relentlessly violent. In one especially damning line, Brown declared he would be "kicking down doors" and "killin' mommas." Harned argued that this was practically a prediction of the slaying of Patricia Harris. The community activist had been shot through the heart in March 1992 when gang members stormed her home searching for rivals, and police said Brown was the ringleader. When the music was played in court, Harned was confident he read victory in the jury's horror.
The trial had been a complex one with a separate jury for each of the defendants, but finally, four years after the crime and his arrest, the verdict came back guilty for X-Raided. The rapper was shuttled off to prison and, presumably, a 31-year sentence of obscurity and heartache. Harned buckled his briefcase on a key career victory and embraced Harris' relatives. The epic length of the case had left the family fuming, and they viewed Harned as their lone crusader in the legal system.
There was no reason for Harned to think he would ever see X-Raided again. But four years later, a letter with a prison postmark reconnected them in a way that would stun the Harris family if they had known.
Today, the 28-year-old Brown sits in Corcoran State Prison and fills his hours and notebooks with rhymes of gang life. His music is no idle handiwork. Despite the efforts of his jailers and the California attorney general, Brown while behind bars has managed to covertly record and release nine albums, the most recent in July. The modest sales make him unknown to most music fans, but X-Raided is an underground hero to some and a celebrity of the prison yard. "The music," he says, "takes me over these walls."
Indeed, the inmate may enjoy more freedom than the man who prosecuted him.
Harned is no longer a prosecutor; he lost that beloved job amid scandal. He restarted his career as a defense attorney in a sad closet of an office located one right turn away from the offices of the Sacramento district attorney. He spends his days now defending accused killers and robbers, but two years ago he quietly began a side project in business law, specifically the music industry. In his moonlighting role, he has one client: X-Raided, the rapper and murderer. The attorney even has an X-Raided CD perched beside his law books."I just can't stand rap music and I don't have to listen to the stuff to work with it," the attorney said. "But I had to put it there. Isn't that something? I'm so proud of him."
For a man six years into a 31-year sentence, Anerae Veshaughn Brown gets around: Folsom, Salinas Valley, Mule Creek and, the latest state prison, Corcoran, north of Bakersfield. "They keep moving me because they say I cause trouble," he said in an interview just before his move last year to Corcoran. "I disagree. Trouble causes me."
Brown chuckled and squinted in the sun beating down on Mule Creek's outdoor visiting area. It's air-conditioned inside, but also as noisy as a middle school cafeteria, so prisoners looking for quiet conversation with their girlfriends and wives sweat outside in their starched denim. The couples hold hands and pace the fenced perimeter in slow procession.
Brown has rounded features and a certain shyness. He seems far removed from the scowling young man who insisted on testifying at his own trial and defiantly said, yes, he was a violent gang member and, yes, he was proud of it. (Said Harned, with a smile: "He was speaking honestly, at least, but I don't think it was necessarily a wise course of action.") He hopes his music will fund his freedom. "Money speeds up everything. I want my albums to make enough to pay Johnnie Cochran or an affiliate of his to help me. I just need to get my music out there. I'll be the biggest story in hip-hop."
Asked about his latest work, X-Raided knitted his eyes, bobbed his head to a beat no one else could hear and began rhyming:
Might survive with black eyes and torn clothes
Or meet my end in the pen, servin' a sentence for sins committed
If I lose my soul I'll send my men to get it
Never break the law again, player, but I intend to bend it
Behind him, some of the Mule Creek couples paused in curiosity, and one inmate with an iron cross tattoo sneered. If the rapper noticed, he gave no sign. Brown's total of 10 albums have combined to sell 309,000 copies in the U.S., according to SoundScan, which is more than many artists but less than, say, Eminem sells in an average week. He is not rich, but his music has earned him more than $100,000 while behind bars.
He was only 16 when he finished his first recording, an underground project with Sacramento rapper Brotha Lynch Hung, and he was signed within a year to an independent label in Northern California. His first solo work, "Psycho Active" in 1992, created a buzz in south Sacramento that a gifted new rapper was claiming the Crips as his gang affiliation.
The cover of "Psycho Active" shows Brown's face with a .38-caliber handgun pressed to his temple. The follow-up album a year later was made inside the Sacramento County jail and recorded over phone lines as Brown awaited trial for the Harris murder. That audacity inspired a frenzy of local media coverage and outrage.
The Harris murder had already been big news in Sacramento, which still fancied itself immune to big-city street crime. Harris, 42, was gunned down in March 1992 in what appeared to be a botched attempt by gang members to shoot her two sons. To many, the crime signaled the importation of Los Angeles gang woes to the state capital.
"We hadn't had that many gang shootings and there was a lot of concern about retaliation," Harned said. "This was a big deal. They had metal detectors set up in the courthouse and sheriff's snipers on the roof. Gang killings are garden-variety nowadays, but not then."
A slaying, then arrests
It had all started with boys shouting in the night outside the Harris home in Meadowview, a neighborhood in south Sacramento. A drowsy Harris padded to the door. The voices out front identified themselves as police officers -- a sly strategy to confuse their quarry, two of the Harris sons, reputed members of the Meadowview Bloods.
The hinges buckled, the door was kicked in and the boys tumbled into the darkened home. In the chaos, a gunshot caught Harris in the heart. The arrests came within days. Five suspects, 15 to 17, all members of the Crips. X-Raided was joined by Skooby, Scrappy, Little Bread and Baby Snake -- their nicknames were probably meant to make them sound streetwise but had the opposite effect. Police said the attack was a reprisal for the deaths of two members of the 29th Street Crips. The youngest among the Crips war party would testify that the raid was engineered by X-Raided, their leader and charismatic neighborhood celebrity.
"Mastermind, that's what they said I was," Brown said. "They took turns during the trial. Either I was an idiot or I was a mastermind."
To Det. Aldert Robinson, a 25-year veteran of the Sacramento police force, what X-Raided really was that fateful night was a poseur in over his head. He said wearily, "There were a lot of kids up here trying to act like they knew what they were doing."
In the early 1990s, L.A.-area gang members were migrating north, many of them youngsters dispatched by families hoping to give them a fresh start. Instead, the newcomers often were the kingfish teaching their old ways to eager novices. X-Raided was one of those novices.
"Brown was an up-and-coming rapper trying to make some music," Robinson said. "During those days, that's when gangsta rap was really starting to take off, and a lot of these guys decided that maybe you had to be involved in what you were rapping about to give yourself some legitimacy. Walk the walk."
Brown's mother, Shirley "Jaz" Brown, says her son was a bright youngster always jotting in his notebooks. He was schooled at home, where R&B; was always around and his dad was not. Rap became his passion, and as his reputation grew, his mother sensed something was going wrong. She wanted him to join her for a much-needed vacation in March 1992, but then let him stay in Sacramento because he had a party celebrating a new single.
Jaz Brown was having a bad dream at her aunt's home in Waco, Texas, when the phone rang. The caller wouldn't identify himself, but he demanded to know who Jaz was and whom she knew in Sacramento. Later, she learned the call had come from the home of Patricia Harris while the woman's blood was still on the floor.
Detectives later explained that they found a Texas phone number on a scrap left at the crime scene. It would be a key link to X-Raided. "In the dream I had that night, there were all these people running, and they were telling me to come on, to hurry, there was danger," Jaz Brown says. "But I kept dropping everything and falling. There was nothing I could do."
Before the murder, Jaz Brown was a clerk at the Sacramento County Courthouse, but she quit when X-Raided became a famous defendant in the corridors. By June 2000, Jaz Brown had a new title, CEO of Madman Records, the new label for X-Raided and other rappers. She ran the business from a tidy Sacramento apartment, but its true command center was her son's cell.
The rapper himself was merely a "consultant," and with good reason. A year earlier, Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer's office had sued X-Raided under the Son of Sam law in an attempt to seize his music profits and set them aside for the family of his victim. "This album," Lockyer said, "is a simple attempt by a criminal with marginal talent to cash in on a murderous past."
But the Son of Sam case against X-Raided stalled and the California Supreme Court later struck down the law. Still, in 2000, the rapper was not about to take chances with his money. He also brought in some professional help to set up the business. The man for the job, he decided, was an old rival.
"Yeah, the prosecutor.... It's twisted, I know that, it sounds twisted," X-Raided said. "But I like it twisted. Everything is strange. But that may be the strangest thing of all."
Recording at prison
The only truly bankable asset for Madman Records was a stack of digitally recorded discs, the master recordings of more than 150 X-Raided songs. The storehouse includes enough unreleased material for three or more albums. On a typical one is the voice of the rapper, sitting in his cell: "All right now, I'm about to give you the hook. First I'll give you one verse on how the hook is said and then I'll give you the second and you can put them on top. So it's the first and the overdub. Here we go...."
The recordings were made at Salinas Valley State Prison. The rapper was unhappy with the sound quality of his first album as an inmate, the one recorded over the phone, and his second, done on cassette tape, was not much better. But at Salinas Valley in 1998, X-Raided finally found his voice.
The rapper says a guard approached him and struck up a friendship that created a pipeline. "He was adamant that he wanted to help me," Brown said. "He was like a little kid, all excited." The guard delivered a digital recorder and the rapper went to work.
The guard smuggled the discs to Brown's label at the time, Black Market Records, and, with studio work, the finished product was ready. "But the guard, he made a mistake," X-Raided said. "I gave him a letter to hand someone on the outside. He left it with his paycheck sitting in a control booth where someone else saw it. That crossed everybody up."
The state Department of Corrections confirms that a guard was fired for smuggling contraband to Brown. Richard Subia, public information officer for Mule Creek State Prison, said that since then, prisoner No. K17737 has been monitored at every facility to prevent a repeat of the embarrassing Salinas Valley episode. "We have an eye toward that now," Subia said. "That was an isolated incident."
Still, the rapper describes himself as a restless artist, waking in the night to scribble rhymes. He is evasive on plans to record more music, but the grin that accompanies his "no comment" speaks volumes. He ends the conversation playfully: "Maybe you should talk to my attorney about that."
Delays in complex case
Pete Harned is a Nat King Cole fan. To him, rap is a torrent of ugly words delivered in a foreign language. But when he was tapped for the Harris murder case, he steeled himself and listened to every X-Raided song. A track called "Tha Murder" is the one that caught his ear.
In "Tha Murder," X-Raided raps that he will stop at nothing to hunt down his rivals, and that he will smash through doors and kill their relatives. The song was so eerily on point that the judge agreed to let jurors hear it twice during the trial.
"It's Sacramento, so you've got mostly a white-ish, middle-class jury and they were clearly offended by it," Harned said. "Your average middle-aged postal worker from Citrus Heights doesn't hear that every day. I don't think they convicted him because he wrote such a song, but it was a very effective piece of the puzzle."
The Harris murder seemed like it might never be resolved in court. Each defendant had a court-appointed defender already dealing with a mountain of work, and the original prosecutor had transferred to his agency's juvenile division after working on the case for two years. His replacement was Harned, who was determined to give the Harris family some resolution.
The youngest of the five arrested suspects had pleaded guilty to ensure he would be tried as a juvenile, and he agreed to testify against his cohorts, who would all be tried as adults. Each defendant had a separate jury. Christopher McKinnie and Roosevelt Jermaine Coleman were accused as accomplices, Brown and the remaining suspect, Samuel Maurice Proctor, were tried as the triggermen.
In the end, three were found guilty on murder and murder conspiracy charges, and given life sentences. Proctor was acquitted. The Harris family was distressed to see anyone go free but happy to see the case end, finally. Four years had passed between the arrests and the final verdict.
X-Raided now says he did not testify about what really happened the night of the Harris murder because he adhered to the gang code of silence. "I could have testified and gone home," the rapper said. "But I kept it real." He says he was present at the attack but did not pull the trigger.
For Harned, closing the case built on a successful law-and-order career that began with a high school job as a clerk typist at the state Department of Justice. By the time he graduated from Cal State Sacramento, he was working in the state agency's Bureau of Organized Crime. In December 1985, he had a law degree following night classes at Lincoln Law School, and a post in the district attorney's office of his hometown.
By 1996, he was one of the prosecutors who handled capital cases for the agency's homicide team and also prosecuted sex crime cases. He was a top gun, a genial workaholic known to friends and rivals alike as a candid but friendly voice; a judicial appointment was seen in the future. Then, on a summer morning in 1996, his computer crashed and his life's work went with it.
The repairman who pried open Harned's home computer reported to police that he found a CD-ROM inside with images of child pornography. The scandal quickly bloomed, and Harned was fired and charged criminally, a golden boy turned pariah. "My untimely demise," he says with a practiced casualness. "I've never been bitter. I've been unhappy about the way it turned out. I loved the office, I loved the people there."
Harned explains it like this: He ordered a CD-ROM from the Netherlands with hundreds of erotic images of young men. Among those images were models under 18, but Harned insists he was oblivious to that. Harned had never made it a secret that he was gay, but neither had he made it a visible part of his work life. Now he found himself explaining his private life and, more pressing, defending himself from criminal charges that might land him in prison for 10 years.
As he had so many times before, Harned won in the courtroom. A judge ruled that the detective who secured a search warrant for Harned's home had misrepresented the disc's content, both in the amount he viewed and in the nature of its explicit content. The charges were dismissed.
Harned retained his license to practice law, but the episode cost him more than a few friends. One day in 2000, though, Harned found a surprising new one in the morning mail. "I got a letter from Anerae Brown. He said he saw on TV news what had happened. He wanted to tell me to stay strong and that he knew I would be OK. I could not have been more stunned."
The rapper explains that he respected the prosecutor's strength and appreciated that during the murder trail, Harned's attacks were damaging but never seemed personal. The correspondence between the unlikely pair continued, and then, when Brown left Black Market Records to start Madman, he asked Harned to handle the paperwork.
"My answer was no for a variety of reasons," Harned said. "It seemed more than a little strange. It is not an area in which I'm professionally trained. I've always worked in criminal law. But what bothered me most was my previous relationship with him. I explained to him very clearly that this would look very unusual to a lot of people and raise a lot of eyebrows."
Brown answered that Harned was the only attorney he trusted. That was enough for the disgraced prosecutor. "I cannot afford, morally, to judge my clients. I can't decide if they are morally bankrupt or evil or good or bad. I am not a moral arbiter. I am a lawyer. If I took only good decent people who did no wrong, these doors would be shuttered, I guarantee you."
Still, Harned, now 43, admits that the faces of the Harris family flashed through his mind. When told that the family will be finding out very soon, the attorney looked like he was waiting for a jury to return a verdict. "If you speak to them," he tells his visitor, "can you let me know what they say?"
Patricia Harris has been reduced to a name in archived court documents, but the closer you get to her home, the more powerful her memory lives. The people remember her, said Betty Scroggins, a volunteer at Meadowview Community Center where Harris was a fixture. "There was a lot of pain at her loss," she said. "As for the one who did it, and the thing he does, well, I'd rather not comment on that."
The front door of the Harris home shows no sign of the violence that took place a decade ago, but the man who opens it is not far removed from that painful night. William C. Harris was married for 25 years, but he was not home the night his wife was taken away.
"The first two or three years it was an illness," he said. "My mind would get bad."
Moving slow, he walks through his home mapping out the madness of that 1992 night. "She came all the way to here, that's when they shot her," he said pointing to a spot near the living room. Then he points again, to a spot beneath a framed copy of the Lord's Prayer. "They found the splashes of blood on the wall, there."
As the grim tour ends, William Harris points down the hall that is off-limits to visitors. "They found her in the bedroom. She crawled all the way back. That's what bothered me. She wanted help. She was dying, in a panic. She wanted help. And there was no help. I wasn't here. I was lost in my guilt."
William Harris is willing to talk, but he's not sure what to say. He offers snapshots, real and remembered, of his lost wife. He was a young saxophone player from Stockton working in R&B; clubs and she was the sister of a singer. She was 17 when they married. Through the years, she worked with the PTA, had five kids and, at the time of her death, 11 grandchildren.
The widower rarely leaves home. He has a hard time sleeping in their bedroom. The kids are gone now, moved out, and he says he is of little good to them. "I taught them life is a minefield," he says, "and it's stacked against you."
He spends his hours toiling on a community newsletter. The content is political and feisty, a transcript of a talk show in his head. One issue has a blurry photo of man with a gun pressed to his head -- it's the cover of X-Raided's first album. The adjacent essay is about black-on-black crime. There is no identification of the man in the picture, no mention of his role in the essayist's life. The hazy image is, like the crime, inseparable from the life of William Harris, but defies explanation or even acknowledgment.
When X-Raided was on trial, Harris accused him of killing purely to promote a rap career. Later, when the albums recorded in prison were released, the widower lashed out publicly at the injustice of it all. Now, though, his rage is seeping away.
Harris did not know Harned was working for X-Raided. When told, he paused for a long moment and then shook his head. "I don't know what to say about that. Harned did all right by us. But I don't understand that. There's a lot I don't understand anymore." He seems to want to say more, but instead he shrugs and guides the visitor back past the crime scene and out the door.
Later, Harned accepted that vague verdict. Then he changed the subject to the future. X-Raided wants to set up a new label, Gangway Records, and minimize the role of Madman and Jaz Brown (instead of minding the money, a frustrated X-Raided said, she mothered the acts, lining up personal finance or anger management classes for them). Harned's role, if any, is uncertain. Last week, he said that if Gangway gets off the ground, he might consider an in-house job as an executive.
"I've never been one to rule things out," he said.
And what of X-Raided's dream of cashing in with his rap and hiring a hotshot defense attorney for an appeal -- did Harned's new friendship with his onetime quarry persuade him that the rapper might have been wrongly convicted? "We've never really discussed it, but no," Harned said, suddenly sounding like a prosecutor back in a world with sure footing and straight lines. "He did it. He's guilty. It was a good case."