Hoping to regroup after a series of pretrial setbacks, lawyers for the family of slain rapper Notorious B.I.G. said Monday that their wrongful death case against the Los Angeles Police Department goes beyond a few reluctant witnesses and the investigative work of a former detective.
Attorney Perry Sanders, who is representing the mother and other surviving relatives of the rapper, born Christopher Wallace, said he plans to present a circumstantial case that would show "more likely than not" that an LAPD officer was involved in the rapper's death.
The team of attorneys for the family released what was described as previously sealed search warrant affidavits in which rap mogul Marion "Suge" Knight allegedly told a confidential informant he had conspired to kill Wallace. Throughout the warrant, however, the name of the informant is blotted out.
That the lawyers called a news conference on the eve of jury selection, scheduled to get underway today in U.S. District Court in downtown Los Angeles, illustrates how much of a moving target this case has become in recent weeks as several key plaintiff's witnesses have changed their stories.
Sanders suggested that "amnesia" on the part of "reluctant witnesses" could be explained by fears related to the case or media coverage.
Wallace, a 24-year-old Brooklyn-born rapper — also known as Biggie Smalls — was gunned down in a car-to-car shooting March 9, 1997, after a party at the Petersen Automotive Museum in the Mid-Wilshire district.
The central theory of the case, put forward by former LAPD Det. Russell Poole, is that the Wallace killing — and that of Tupac Shakur six months earlier — grew out of a feud between East Coast and West Coast rap contingents, one led by Knight's Death Row Records and the other by New York-based Bad Boy Entertainment.
According to Poole, Knight enlisted ex-Los Angeles Police Officer David A. Mack to orchestrate the Wallace slaying. Mack, who was subsequently convicted of bank robbery, then allegedly hired Amir Muhammad to carry out the vendetta.
But Poole charged that his investigation was derailed after department higher-ups — including former police Chief Bernard C. Parks — quashed his investigation, an allegation Parks and other LAPD officials have repeatedly denied. However, the FBI, citing lack of evidence, closed an investigation into this theory in January.
Long before those issues will be hashed out, however, a ruling by U.S. District Judge Florence-Marie Cooper first requires the jury to decide whether Mack orchestrated the killing.
Assistant City Atty. Don W. Vincent said there are no witnesses and no murder weapon or other evidence to link Mack to the slaying.
"There's not a shred of evidence that I can see that links [Mack] to Biggie Smalls," said Vincent, who is defending the city in the federal lawsuit. "We are prepared and feel comfortable and confident in our case."
Neither the LAPD nor the FBI, which earlier this year ended a separate 18-month investigation, have identified a suspect in the case.
Sanders said he wanted to focus his case on civil rights violations by the department, insisting that its policies "caused and allowed people for the LAPD to also work for gangsters and criminals and for those officers to use their police authority to commit crimes."
To that end, attorneys for the rapper's family said they dropped several defendants — including Mack, Muhammad and Parks — from the case in the months leading up to trial.
But contradictory testimony given by the only purported eyewitnesses to the slaying may prove difficult to explain to a jury.
In February, a jailhouse informant known to law enforcement officials as "Psycho Mike" admitted under oath that he never saw Muhammad before picking his picture out of a police lineup. The informant also told authorities that he had no evidence that Knight or Mack were involved in a wider conspiracy.
Earlier this month, a second informant gave contradictory statements during a videotaped deposition, court documents show.
Initially, the man said Knight ordered two Death Row employees to execute Wallace, never mentioning that police officers were involved in the killing. The informant repeated the claims for years to several law enforcement agencies, including the LAPD and FBI.
But as recently as two weeks ago, the informant said he was present at a Las Vegas nightclub when Knight hired Mack and Muhammad.
Then on Friday, former Death Row Records bodyguard and onetime FBI informant Kevin Hackie told The Times he suffered from memory lapses and charged the Wallace family legal team with altering his statements.
Hackie had said in a 2004 declaration he had "personal knowledge" about the Wallace slaying and alleged that "persons within Death Row Records offered $25,000 to a law enforcement officer" to kill the rapper.
Knight has denied any involvement in the murder, as have Mack and Muhammad.
Times staff writer Chuck Philips contributed to this report.