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Los Angeles Times
Los Angeles Times
James Queally and Jonah Valdez

Jurors weigh Tory Lanez’s fate in Megan Thee Stallion shooting case

LOS ANGELES —There’s no question that someone shot Megan Thee Stallion in the Hollywood Hills in 2020.

Prosecutors have pointed the finger at Canadian hip-hop star Tory Lanez, whose real name is Daystar Peterson. They say the rapper was drunk and furious with the “Savage” hit-maker, whose real name is Megan Pete, after she insulted his career in a raucous argument inside an SUV.

But during a contentious nine-day trial that has been replete with allegations of witness tampering, Peterson’s team has tried to shift the blame toward Pete’s estranged best friend, Kelsey Harris. Lead defense attorney George Mgdesyan has contended the case was about a romantic tryst rather than a rivalry between rappers, claiming Harris exploded following an alcohol-fueled revelation that both women had been sleeping with Peterson.

Jurors will now have to choose between those stories as Peterson’s trial came to an end Thursday. He is charged with assault with a firearm, possession of a concealed firearm and reckless discharge of a gun. If convicted on all counts and a pair of sentencing enhancements, he faces up to 23 years in prison. Harris is not on trial.

During closing arguments Wednesday, L.A. County Deputy District Attorney Alexander Bott revisited Pete’s emotional testimony from last week, where the normally swaggering rapper admitted she regretted reporting Peterson to police because of the torrent of criticism she’s gotten from fans and male icons in the hip-hop industry.

“I wish he would’ve just shot and killed me if I knew I was going to have to go through this torture,” Pete, 27, testified.

Closing arguments wrapped up Thursday and Mgdesyan continued to focus on testimony from Sean Kelly, a neighbor who watched the incident unfold from his balcony. He testified that he saw “muzzle flashes” coming from where a woman was standing, implying Harris pulled the trigger.

“(Kelly) has been consistent from the first day,” Mgdesyan said, calling Kelly the only independent eyewitness in the case who has no ties to Pete or others.

Mgdesyan also emphasized the lack of forensic evidence against Peterson. DNA tests on the gun used in the shooting were inconclusive, and Peterson’s DNA was not found on the magazine that had been inserted into the firearm. He questioned on Thursday why only Peterson had been tested for DNA, and not Harris or Peterson’s driver, Jaquan Smith.

“If Kelsey Harris’ DNA was on that gun, would we be here today?” Mgdesyan asked jurors. “The lack of DNA itself is reasonable doubt.’ ”

Only four people saw what happened on the July 2020 night when gunfire erupted in the Hollywood Hills. Pete, Peterson, Harris and Peterson’s driver, Smith, were inside an SUV leaving an alcohol-fueled party at Kylie Jenner’s home.

Peterson declined to take the stand in the case. Although Smith was present in court Wednesday, the defense declined to call him after prosecutors asked for a weeklong continuance if he testified. Peterson was concerned the delay could cause a mistrial, Mgdesyan said. A spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office did not respond to questions about why a continuance would be needed.

The shooting sparked 911 calls, and Los Angeles police officers intercepted the vehicle on Hollywood Boulevard a short time later. Dramatic body camera footage showed Pete falling down bloody while trying to comply with police orders, while Peterson was forced to lie face-down and shirtless in the middle of the street. Peterson was later booked on suspicion of possessing an unregistered firearm, but Pete did not tell police she had been shot until days later.

Mgdesyan has regularly attacked Pete’s credibility, questioning her decision to delay reporting the incident to police and her refusal to admit she’d had a sexual relationship with Peterson until the trial, which he argued is central to the case. Dismissing Pete’s claim she was afraid to cooperate with police, Mgdesyan has argued she was trying to protect Harris and a jury cannot take her at her word.

“Megan Pete is a liar. She has lied about everything this case,” Mgdesyan said, later adding that Pete “told you Black women don’t talk to the police, and yet, four days later, she’s talking to the police.”

L.A. County Deputy District Attorney Kathy Ta pushed back on that portrayal Thursday, asking jurors what motive Pete would have to lie, and reminding the panel of the severe backlash the performer has faced since reporting the incident to authorities.

“It would’ve been easier to say, ‘My crazy ex-assistant did this,’ ” Ta said, referring to Harris.

On the night of the shooting, Harris sent a panicked text to Pete’s head of security reading, “Tory shot Meg.” Earlier this year, she identified Peterson as the gunman in a recorded interview with prosecutors and echoed Pete’s allegation that Peterson offered both women $1 million not to speak to police.

But in court last week, Harris walked back most of those statements, saying she was not “100% truthful” in the recorded interview while refusing to say what she lied about. Harris was granted limited immunity for her testimony and spent most of her day on the stand infuriating prosecutors. Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge David Herriford eventually allowed prosecutors to play Harris’ entire recorded interview for jurors, who must now determine which version of her testimony was accurate.

“Obviously something happened to Kelsey,” Bott on Wednesday said of the discrepancies between her testimony and the interview in September. “Something spooked her. Maybe somebody got to her. Maybe she took one of those bribes.”

“She had an attorney, and every time she was questioned and grilled, they went through that door,” he said, nodding to a hallway where Harris fled from the stand several times last week.

Prosecutors have also pointed to voicemails and texts Peterson sent to Harris and Pete in which he apologized for his behavior within 24 hours of the incident, though he never actually admits to a crime. Bott called on jurors to use their common sense and infer the only thing he could have been sorry for was the shooting.

While Mgdesyan has argued Harris sent the texts to cover for her crime, Bott called that assertion preposterous.

“Is Kelsey some kind of criminal mastermind where she’s framing the defendant five minutes after the shooting?” Bott asked.

Mgdesyan said Thursday that prosecutors had been too dismissive of testimony from Kelly, the neighbor who witnessed the altercation. But in their rebuttal, prosecutors drew heavily from Kelly’s testimony.

While Mgdesyan focused on Kelly’s claim that saw flashes from where Harris was standing during the altercation, prosecutors reminded jurors that Kelly also testified he saw “flashes” coming from where “the short man” — presumably the diminutive Peterson — was standing.

Ta shared excerpts from Kelly’s earlier testimony, showing that it was in line with how prosecutors say the shooting unfolded: The short man — Peterson — was standing outside the car with two women — Harris and Pete — when Kelly saw the first muzzle flashes; the short man’s arm was outstretched when he saw one of the flashes and had heard what he described as gunshots; and that the short man had been upset, yelling obscenities at the women.

Ta reasserted the prosecution’s argument that Peterson had been motivated by jealousy and that Pete had “bruised his ego” as a rapper during a verbal argument inside the car, leading up to the shooting.

Coming at the end of a string of celebrity trials in the courthouse that involved disgraced Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein and former “That ‘70s Show” star Danny Masterson, Peterson’s trial has arguably attracted the most attention.

The courtroom has been nearly full every day, with some of Peterson’s fans lining the back of the gallery and heaping praise on the Ontario-born rapper in the hallway. Social media personalities often spend lunch breaks arguing over Peterson’s guilt or innocence outside the 15th-floor courtroom. On the day Pete testified, a number of women staged a small rally on Temple Street to show support for her as a survivor of domestic violence.

“This whole story has not been about the shooting. It’s only been about who I been having sex with,” Pete testified last week, her voice cracking with frustration. “When people talk about Megan Thee Stallion getting shot, all the headlines are Megan Thee Stallion is on trial, and I’m not on trial!”

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