The Latest From The Suge Knight Trial

Esquire's Sanjiv Bhattacharya has a front row seat at the trial gripping America

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When a rainstorm hits LA in July, you know something’s not right in the world. Thunder feels like a portent, lightning a scold. The black clouds become metaphors.

I doubt Suge Knight, aka “Big Homey”, can even see the sky from his cell at Men’s Central Jail in downtown LA. But he knows what I’m talking about. Even though his trial’s still a way off – mid-September, the Judge said – these pre-prandial hearings in the run-up are when the chess pieces get moved into place, each side revealing a little strategy, a little strength, maybe gaining a psychological edge, like the weigh-in for a prize fight. In the last two weeks, Knight’s had two such hearings on 7 and 17 July. And he’s looked a little weaker after each one. The storm hit on the 18. But even in a cell without windows, Knight knew that the clouds were gathering.

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A quick refresher on what happened.

Knight drove to Tam’s Burgers in Compton, thinking he was going to discuss his fee for the movie Straight Outta Compton with his friend Terry Carter. Instead he drove into an ambush. A long time rival Cle “Bone” Sloan attacked Knight as he sat in his truck, punching him through an open window. Knight lurched the vehicle backwards and then drove away, running over both Sloan, who was injured, and Carter, who was killed. Knight claims self-defense, the prosecution claims murder.

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What’s happened in the last couple of weeks is that Judge Ronald Coen of Court 101 on the 9th Floor has started bringing the gavel down in no uncertain terms. Almost everything Knight’s attorney, Thomas Mesereau has requested has been declined in short order. He wanted the case moved to Compton. He wanted it dismissed altogether on the grounds that Knight hadn’t been properly identified as the defendant. He asked for a bail reduction. And then, on account of Knight’s health problems, even passing out in court, his co-counsel Thaddeus Culpepper requested that he be treated by his personal doctor.

Denied on every count.

To be fair, these aren’t critical defeats; in the end, the jury decides, not the judge. And as Mesereau told me after the 7 July 7th hearing: “That’s OK. Judges have to appear strong in these high profile trials ever since OJ. That’s why Lance Ito never made it to the court of appeals.”

But the way they went down doesn’t bode well. It sent a chill through Knight’s supporters.

There was Coen’s tone, on the bail hearing, for instance. The italics are his:

"The fact that I was the one that initially set bond or bail at $25m… and that I was the one who decreased the bail to $10m based on evidence I heard at the preliminary hearing… I have heard nothing that would convince me that bail is insufficient..."

And on the request to see his personal doctor, Coen used Mesereau’s words against him: “Mr Mesereau said, and I think I’m quoting exactly, ‘all we are asking is that the defendant be treated like anyone else.’ And I agree. Motion for private medical care... is denied.”

The Coen we saw in the preliminary hearings in April would address the bench with a wry smile. He let the preliminary hearing run for two days. He looked like he was enjoying himself. Now, though, not so much. Everything is brisk, and everything is no. He’s asserting himself. The game has changed.

Back in April, Knight was represented by a veteran criminal defense attorney from Long Beach, Matthew Fletcher, who had a jokey rapport with Coen. But he has been replaced by Mesereau, a heavyweight with a Q rating and an imposing physical presence. He stands tall, broad shouldered, with a white mane of hair. He exudes authority and his reputation precedes him: he’s the man who freed Michael Jackson. And the media loves him. Fletcher used to give press conferences outside, always ready to answer questions. But on the first day Mesereau took the case, he told reporters: “this case will be tried in the courts and not the media”, and then he marched up Temple Street, briefcase in hand. Photographers and news crews chased him up the hill like paparazzi, a kerfuffle of kit and wires.

It’s as though Coen has sensed his power, and decided to demonstrate his own. Show him whose court it actually is.

The camera in the corner is hardly blameless. In a celebrity case, with reporters in the pews, every hearing is part-performance. The DA Cynthia Barnes even acknowledged as much during the bail appeal on Friday. She told the Judge that she was offended by Mesereau’s speech about why Knight doesn’t deserve such high bail. “He’s offered no evidence,” she said. “I don’t know if he’s doing this for the press or what, to persuade the public that Mr Knight is a nice guy...”

But the camera that really counts is the one in the Tam’s Burgers parking lot. The whole case hinges on that video – visual DNA, attorneys call it, because your eyes don’t lie. And yet both sides are pointing to the same footage and saying, “Look! Surely now you can see that he’s innocent / guilty!”

Here’s one of the critical moments: after Suge’s truck has left the scene, having run down both Cle Sloan and Terry Carter, a known gangbanger named Jimmy Chris approaches Sloan’s body and takes something from his hand. He looks around and furtively puts it in his waistband. For the defence, the object is almost certainly a gun – why would a gangbanger rush to take anything else from Sloan before the paramedics arrive? But the prosecution and investigating Sheriff has argued that it could be a radio, or a cellphone. As Mesereau told me afterwards, “Did you ever see someone put a cellphone in their waistband?”

On Friday, however, a new development – Judge Coen said that he wasn’t buying this gun theory. He said he’d watched the whole tape “about five times” – the incident and the aftermath, in which paramedics and Sheriffs showed up, and the scene was processed, the victims stretchered off. And he said: “this person [Jimmy Chris] picked up an object and appeared to put it in his back pocket... This person didn’t leave the scene. He went from Victim 1 [Sloan] to the decedent [Carter], and stood over him for several minutes.... If I had a gun in my back pocket I wouldn’t be around the company of Deputy Sheriffs...”

It was a telling moment. Perhaps the Judge was hinting to the DA that come the trial, this gun argument could even be taken off the table – that there just wasn’t sufficient evidence to keep making the allegation. And if that happens, Knight’s claim of self-defence gets much weaker.

When Defendant Knight was escorted off through a door on the left, his family watched in silence. The shackles around his ankles sounded louder than ever. Sometimes after court, there are huddles in the hallway, post-game breakdowns. It’s always struck me how upbeat both the victim and the defendant’s families have been throughout this case – the Carters and the Knights.

But this time, only the DA was beaming, surrounded by a group of fellow prosecutors. With shining smiles, they strode past Knight’s ailing mother Maxine, who was hobbling down the amber corridor helped on both sides by his sisters.

The skies just got a bit darker for Knight.

What do you think?

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