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Los Angeles Times
Los Angeles Times
James Queally

Nipsey Hussle's alleged killer heads to trial. Conviction won't bring closure to Crenshaw

LOS ANGELES — There are only nine miles between the Crenshaw neighborhood parking lot where Nipsey Hussle was shot to death in 2019 and the downtown Los Angeles courtroom where his alleged killer will stand trial this month. But to some, the two places might as well be worlds apart.

LaTanya Ward, who had been friends with the rapper since 2007 and organized a march in his honor a week after his death, said she isn't focused on the pending prosecution of Eric Holder Jr. for Hussle's death "at all."

For many in Crenshaw and South L.A., she said, the best way to advance Hussle's legacy is to focus on the community empowerment and reinvestment that marked the last few years of his life, rather than the specifics of his death.

"Court trials and murder cases ain't scarce around here, sad to say. The death of Black folks' futures is a plenty, both by death and the 'injustice' system," said Ward. "What I want to pour into is what's lacking energy, and that's transgenerational healing, starting with Black gang members."

Many sets of eyes will be trained on the courtroom where Holder's murder trial starts with jury selection Thursday. But few of them are likely to come from the neighborhood Hussle — born Ermias Asghedom — loved and rapped about so often.

To some, the disconnect between the trial of Hussle's alleged killer and the neighborhoods most affected by his death speaks to a broader chasm between South L.A. and the rest of the city.

"This is part of our relationship and critique of the criminal justice system. I want a criminal justice system that gets there before it happens... so Nipsey would still be with us and the Marathon store would still be open and would have blossomed in the way that it should have," said L.A. City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson, whose district includes Crenshaw. "To tell me, 'Oh, we convicted a person,' it's a hollow form of closure."

In the years leading up to his death, Hussle was ascending both as a rapper and community figure. He'd opened his Slauson Avenue store, the Marathon Clothing, in 2017 and helped found a co-working space called Vector90 one year later.

After a series of heralded mixtapes, Hussle dropped his first full-fledged record, "Victory Lap," in 2018, earning a Grammy nomination in the best rap album category. In early 2019, Hussle bought the lot that housed Marathon and a number of other small businesses for $2.5 million.

He was standing in that same parking lot, signing autographs and meeting with fans, on the day he was shot to death.

Among that crowd of fans was Holder, himself an aspiring rapper and also a member of the Rolling 60s Crips, the gang set that Hussle was never shy about acknowledging his membership in.

The two spoke for about four minutes, and the conversation wasn't "particularly intense," according to testimony delivered before a grand jury in May 2019. But the discussion eventually turned to a topic that can quickly prove deadly in South L.A., and ultimately may have for Hussle.

"Apparently, the conversation had something to do with [Hussle] telling Mr. Holder that word on the street was that Mr. Holder was snitching," Los Angeles County Deputy Dist. Atty. John McKinney said during the grand jury hearing.

McKinney said the conversation drove Holder "to a point of wanting to return to the parking lot and kill Nipsey Hussle," court records show.

According to the grand jury testimony, Holder left to get food, then returned to the parking lot. He opened fire with a pair of handguns seconds later. Hussle was shot 10 times and died at a hospital. Two other men were wounded but survived.

Holder was arrested two days after the shooting, when a woman who served as his getaway driver turned herself into police. The woman, whose identity has been withheld by authorities because of concerns about her safety, figures to be a key witness at Holder's trial.

Jury selection is expected to last two weeks, and McKinney said the trial itself will take another two weeks, meaning a verdict won't come until July, at the earliest.

McKinney said he expects to call about 15 witnesses at trial, though tracking some of them down has proved to be a "challenge."

"Some of it is because so much time has passed since these witnesses were last contacted," he said. "But also the nature of the case is such that it's not the kind of case that witnesses are looking forward to coming to court and testifying in."

McKinney declined to elaborate on grand jury testimony about Holder and Hussle's conversation about snitching. Holder, who rapped under the moniker "Fly Mac" and was described as a familiar face in South L.A. by some locals in 2019, pleaded not guilty. He faces a de facto life sentence if convicted as charged of murder, attempted murder and several weapons enhancements. Under state law, he would eventually be eligible for parole.

Little is known about what defense Holder will offer. His attorney, Deputy Public Defender Aaron Jensen, has previously noted his client had a history of mental health issues. But Jensen has not made any public court filings about Holder's mental health and did not respond to an email seeking comment.

Hussle is still an ever-present figure near the site of his death. Though the Marathon and its adjacent businesses are now shuttered, his name is spelled out in red and white roses at a stand selling T-shirts emblazoned with his face outside the Marathon lot.

On the other side of the intersection of Slauson Avenue and Crenshaw Boulevard, a mural featuring Hussle's face ringed by a halo is painted on the wall of a bank branch. Nearby, a framed picture of the rapper in a Los Angeles Lakers jersey greets guests as they walk through the door of Off Da Hook fish house, owned by one of Hussle's closest friends.

Ask around the area, and few people seem interested in discussing the trial. One friend of Hussle's responded with a simple "F— Eric," in response to an interview request.

Skipp Townsend, a former gang member turned community activist, said he expects some celebration if Holder is convicted but thinks there should be more focus on the extraordinary lines of communication opened during a 2019 summit of rival Bloods and Crips factions that was motivated, in part, by Hussle's death.

At the time, the talks established what those in attendance in Compton described as more of a temporary cease-fire than a long-term truce. But Townsend said rival groups such as the Swamp Crips and the Bloods-affiliated Campanella Park Pirus and the Rollin 60s and Rollin 40s Crips have remained "on speaking terms" since the summit.

That seemed like an impossibility before Hussle's death and the summit, according to Townsend.

"Those two tribes have not gone back to war, they're on the phone talking now," said Townsend, referring to the Swamp Crips and Pirus. "It's hard to tell how many bodies would have been piled up because of that."

Townsend said he believes Hussle's ties to South L.A. and depressingly familiar cause of death — an argument settled with gunfire — had a lasting effect on gang members in the area.

"Sometimes the conditions of the community will force us to come together. When there's a person of iconic view, like Nipsey, who didn't leave the community but helped to uplift and rebuild the community, those are things that touch people's heart," he said.

"Everybody's looking for MLK Jr. to come back," Townsend continued. "Everyone is looking for Jesus Christ to come back. But we find people with good spirit, and Nipsey had a good spirit… People gravitate to that good spirit."

Harris-Dawson, who represents the city's 8th District, said more attention should be paid to how Hussle's death led other Black celebrities to reinvest in the area, pointing to Compton-born NBA star DeMar DeRozan's decision to pump funds into the $100-million Destination Crenshaw art project in 2021.

More broadly, Harris-Dawson said, Hussle's story inspired South L.A. residents to pursue their own businesses, hoping to mirror the rapper's journey from selling CDs on a parcel of land to owning that same plot.

"There are senses of just everyday people who said, 'Hey I'm going to start working on my art or I'm going to open up a small business' … folks just did it," he said.

Ward, Hussle's friend, said the rapper and entrepreneur's death changed "the whole course" of her life. After organizing the march in Hussle's honor, Ward got involved with a community safety program run by Harris-Dawson's office.

A member of the Black P. Stones set of the Bloods, Ward has been organizing healing circles aimed at limiting violence between gang members since 2015 through a program she calls "G.U.T.T." (Gaining Unity Through Transformation). After Hussle's death, she launched a nonprofit called W.A.R.F.O.A. — meaning "We Are Responsible For One Another" — which she described as "a healing, violence-prevention and education hub."

Ward said her experience is far from isolated. She believes stories of people still inspired to change and improve three years after Hussle's death are far more important than what happens to the man who allegedly killed him.

"People have linked up and they have started little fires of movements," she said. "That's humongous. That's Black lives being saved."

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