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Man pleads guilty in rapper Pop Smoke’s death, is sentenced to four years

An investigation is underway in the Hollywood Hills.
Police investigate the killing of Pop Smoke, a rising New York rapper who was fatally shot Feb. 19, 2020.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
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A 20-year-old charged in the killing of Pop Smoke pleaded guilty in juvenile court Thursday, admitting he entered a Hollywood Hills mansion as a teenager in February 2020 intending to rob the rapper, who was shot to death in a struggle with his assailants.

The defendant pleaded guilty in an Inglewood courtroom to voluntary manslaughter and home invasion robbery; he was the first to admit guilt of four defendants charged in the death of Pop Smoke, whose real name was Bashar Barakah Jackson.

Judge J. Christopher Smith sentenced the defendant to four years and two months in the Secure Youth Treatment Facility but warned he could remain in juvenile custody until he was 25. The judge declined to apply the two years and eight months he has already spent in juvenile hall toward his sentence.

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Three others are charged in Jackson’s death: two juvenile defendants, 15 and 17 at the time of the homicide, and Corey Walker, who was 19. A judge has issued a court order barring the media from identifying the juvenile defendants.

A native of New York City, Jackson, 20, was on a four-day trip to Los Angeles when he posted a photograph on Instagram of a gift bag from his favorite clothing brand, Amiri. The label revealed the address of the home where he’d been staying on Hercules Drive.

That night, a group of people wearing ski masks burst into Jackson’s bedroom, a detective testified at a preliminary hearing. They confronted him in a shower, where one of the suspects — a 15-year-old boy — pistol-whipped the rapper and shot him three times in the back, according to testimony.

They made off with Jackson’s watch, a diamond-studded Rolex they sold for $2,000, a detective said at the hearing.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Hilary Williams told a judge at a hearing in August that the defendant who pleaded guilty Thursday was no minor participant in the crime: He scouted the mansion, helped Walker recruit three other juveniles to rob Jackson and, after entering the home, remained in “constant communication” with Walker, who waited in the getaway car.

From a wiretap on his phone, detectives learned he’d committed other robberies, Williams added.

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Martin Lijtmaer, the attorney for the defendant who pleaded guilty Thursday, argued his client was intellectually disabled, sparking a years-long series of examinations and hearings over his competency to stand trial.

Jody Ward, a psychologist who examined the defendant on behalf of the prosecution, testified in August that he appeared to be faking the disability.

He was diagnosed as a child with a learning disability but tested at an “average” level in school, which he stopped attending regularly after the second grade, Ward said. Arrested for the first time at 14, he was referred to the Los Angeles County Regional Center for the Developmentally Disabled, where his IQ was gauged at just 52. Ward said this was inexplicable: Tested in school, he was found to have an IQ of 92, an average level.

A person with an IQ of 52 would have difficulty planning his behavior, act on impulse and might even be non-verbal, Ward testified. She said she found it hard to believe that “someone who should have difficulty toileting themselves would ever be brought along on a crime like this,” one that required “a lot of planning, thinking through and strategizing.”

After he was arrested, the defendant showed a familiarity with the judicial process that belied his alleged disability, Ward testified. He planned with his cellmate — a plant for the police, who were secretly recording the conversation — how to glean information from detectives without giving anything up himself, Ward said.

“OJ was able to beat his case even though there was blood on his socks,” he told his cellmate, according to Ward. But if all else failed, “I still got that Regional Center s—,” he said, a reference to the facility where he’d been diagnosed as disabled.

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A psychologist who examined the defendant at the request of his defense attorney said feigning a disability would demand “a level of sophistication that would be vastly inconsistent with past educational records, psychological testing and previous behavioral observations,” according to an appellate ruling that quotes his testimony.

A judge found the defendant did have an intellectually disability but was nonetheless competent to stand trial, pointing to the jailhouse recording and calls with his mother that showed he understood how the courts worked, the ruling says.

After the finding was affirmed on appeal, the defendant chose to plead guilty, said his attorney, Lijtmaer. He told the judge his client was “clearly on a path to rehabilitation.”

After handing down the sentence, Smith addressed the defendant. “I don’t know how you and your friends even came to the idea to rob someone, someone whose life was taken unnecessarily.”

The judge noted the defendant will one day return to his family. “Mr. Jackson is not. His life is done because of what you and your friends did. You owe. You owe.”

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