Two attorneys who previously represented former rap mogul Marion "Suge" Knight during his ongoing murder case and were arrested on charges accusing them of acting as "accessories after the fact," were released from custody Friday, authorities said.
Matthew Fletcher, 53, was initially taken into custody Thursday at the Long Beach courthouse around 2 p.m. and was held in lieu of $1-million bail, according to sheriff's Sgt. Robert Alexander.
Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department spokeswoman Nicole Nishida said Thursday that Thaddeus Culpepper was arrested at his home around 5 p.m. She declined to elaborate on the accessory charges or clarify whether the attorneys are accused in connection with Knight's pending legal troubles.
Both Fletcher and Culpepper were released from custody late Friday, sheriff's officials said in a statement.
"The case is very complex in nature, requiring further review by the Los Angeles County district attorney's office," the statement said. "Mr. Culpepper and Mr. Fletcher were released from custody today, pending an evaluation into the complexities of the case."
In August, Los Angeles County prosecutors alleged that Fletcher, Culpepper, Knight and others tampered with witnesses and discussed bribes connected to the rap impresario's murder case. The allegations were detailed in a 22-page court filing.
Both attorneys vehemently denied the accusations.
Knight, 52, is scheduled to stand trial this year on charges that he barreled his truck into Terry Carter and Cle "Bone" Sloan in the parking lot of a Compton burger stand in late January 2015, following a dispute on the set of a commercial for the movie "Straight Outta Compton." Carter, 55, died of his injuries.
Footage from a security camera shows Knight — who has pleaded not guilty and says he acted in self-defense — plowing his truck into the men. Knight, who fled the scene but later turned himself in, also is accused of robbery and threatening the film's director, F. Gary Gray, in separate cases.
Ruby Peralta, Fletcher's wife, said that she did not know if her husband was being represented by an attorney and was uncertain about the reasons for his arrest.
"I don't know anything right now," Peralta said.
The August filing by the district attorney's office asked the court to conduct an inquiry into whether Fletcher had a conflict of interest in representing Knight against the threat charges involving Gray.
Prosecutors said investigators had "gathered evidence of possible witness tampering, bribery, conspiracy to violate a court order and obstruction of justice on the part of attorney Fletcher."
By that point, the lawyer was no longer the attorney of record in Knight's murder case. The evidence was likely to be raised by prosecutors during the murder trial, the district attorney's filing said.
In a series of recorded phone calls beginning in early 2015, prosecutors say, Knight, Fletcher and others discussed paying witnesses to say they saw either the victims or others at the burger stand in possession of a gun, a move that would bolster Knight's self-defense claim.
In one call, to an unidentified woman, Knight said he needed a witness to claim they saw guns on the day of the hit-and-run, according to the district attorney's filing. Later that day, prosecutors said, Knight, Fletcher and Knight's business partner were involved in a conference call in which the possibility of exchanging cash for testimony was discussed.
"And you all went over there and you saw these guns removed from these two people," Fletcher said, according to prosecutors. "Yes, yes. Fine, dude, you're done. Here's your money."
Though calls between Fletcher and Knight normally would have been protected by attorney-client privilege, a judge allowed investigators to listen to recordings if Knight called someone who then put Fletcher on the line, thus breaking the privilege.
Prosecutors said they believe that Knight and Fletcher agreed "that witnesses would need to be paid in order for the defendant to obtain his freedom."
In the filing, prosecutors also said Culpepper agreed to pay an informant for "his sworn testimony that he was present at the time of the crime and [witnessed] evidence favorable to the defense."
Prosecutors contend that Knight's legal team will argue at trial that the victims or others were armed on the day of the crime — a theory prosecutors say isn't supported by the evidence.
The district attorney's filing also accuses Fletcher of playing a role in the leak of a key piece of evidence — surveillance video of Knight's red truck barreling into the two men at the Compton burger joint. A judge had ordered that the video not be given to the media.
On March 9, 2015 — the day, prosecutors say, Fletcher became Knight's attorney of record in the murder case — the video was published by the celebrity news website TMZ.
Last year, Knight's fiancee, Toi-Lin Kelly, pleaded no contest to violating a court order for helping to arrange the sale of the video to TMZ for $55,000. Knight's business partner, Mark Blankenship, has also been charged with helping to arrange the deal; he has pleaded not guilty.
Fletcher previously told The Times that he never had possession of the video and therefore couldn't have leaked it.
He said prosecutors had taken his words out of context and were trying to discredit defense witnesses before they testified. Fletcher also expressed outrage that a judge authorized investigators to listen to his conversations with a client.
"If you can't speak to your lawyer over the phone without the government listening to it, I find that fairly reprehensible," he said.
Culpepper also chastised the district attorney's office.
"The facts in this case are extremely compelling and overwhelmingly prove Mr. Knight's innocence," Culpepper wrote in an email to The Times in August. "No amount of prosecutorial spin or mudslinging will change that!"
Both attorneys have been faulted by the agency that disciplines lawyers in California.
Culpepper, a lawyer in the state since 2002, failed to appear at multiple hearings for a client in 2010 and 2011 and did not release his client after the case was taken over by another attorney, according to State Bar of California records. In 2010, he was rebuked by the agency for failing to report sanctions from a judge and neglecting to competently work as an attorney.
During more than 20 years of practicing law in California, Fletcher has twice been disciplined.
In 2006, the agency rebuked him over his conduct at two different criminal trials. During one in 2002, he laughed at a judge who issued an unfavorable ruling, according to state bar records. After the judge admonished him, Fletcher, who is black, accused the judge of racial bias and vehemently objected.
"I have no idea where you think that you have the basis to tell me that I cannot laugh," he told the judge.
After the trial, another judge found that Fletcher committed nine acts of contempt and sentenced him to two days in jail.
The bar also took issue with Fletcher's actions in a 2005 trial. The lawyer accused Superior Court Judge David Wesley of racial bias after the judge questioned him for tardiness at a hearing, according to agency records.
In October, the State Bar of California suspended Fletcher's law license for 30 days and placed him on probation for two years. A state bar judge found that Fletcher accepted more than $20,000 from family members of a defendant without first obtaining the consent of the defendant.
7:25 p.m.: This article was updated with a statement from sheriff's officials that both attorneys were released from custody.
Thursday, Jan. 25:
9:20 p.m.: This story was updated with information about the arrest of Thaddeus Culpepper.
8:45 p.m.: This story was updated throughout with additional background about Fletcher's law career as well as details about allegations of witness tampering in Suge Knight's murder case.