Suge Knight's Strange Breed of Justice

The infamous record exec has been charged with murder, his third strike, but his trial has already been anything but ordinary.

Steve Marcus/Reuters/The Atlantic

Usually, it's good news to go from Death Row to life in prison. Not so for Suge Knight, the one-time rap mogul who now faces a life sentence for running two men over in Los Angeles.

Knight was the force behind Death Row Records, once home to Dr. Dre and the man then known as Snoop Doggy Dogg. But his star has fallen, his rap sheet is impressively long, and now he faces charges of murder, attempted murder, and hit and run. (His nickname pronounced "Shoog," if you're not in the know—short for sugar. His given name is Marion.)

The circumstances are murky and, inevitably, disputed. Knight was on the set of Straight Outta Compton, an uncreatively named biopic about the hip hop group N.W.A., on the afternoon of January 29 when he got into an argument with two men and was asked to leave. Somehow, the argument reignited at a nearby burger joint a little later (how Knight and the men both came to be there is in dispute). Knight allegedly followed the men to the eatery where the argument flared again before he ran them over in his truck. He says he was acting in self-defense; prosecutors say he intentionally ran them over, then backed over them before driving away. Knight says the man who was killed, Terry Carter, was a friend who was in the wrong place at the wrong moment; sheriffs say Carter's family says otherwise.

Whatever happened, Knight fled the scene and surrendered to police early Friday. He seemed jaunty at the time—laughing for cameras and leaving his trademark cigar on a tree, saying he'd collect it when he got out. But things got bleaker in between. A judge first set his bail at $2 million, then revoked that, deeming Knight a flight risk. During his arraignment Tuesday, Knight had an apparent panic attack and was taken to the hospital for chest pains.

It's easy to see why Knight would be rattled. Conviction on any of the counts would constitute a third strike under California's three-strikes law, meaning he could go to prison for life. In 1997, he was sentenced to nine years in prison for violating parole on a previous assault case. He got out in 2001, but was sent back two years later when he hit a parking-lot attendant. That's just part of an impressive rap sheet. Knight was also, famously, injured in 1996 when someone opened fire on the BMW he was driving, killing Tupac Shakur. (He's also been linked, though never by authorities, to the death of Notorious B.I.G. a year later.)

The upshot is that Knight has two strikes against him already.

But Knight was also arrested last fall for robbery in Los Angeles. During an altercation between paparazzi, Knight and comedian Katt Williams, he allegedly grabbed a camera. Prosecutors charged him with robbery in that case, and he was out on bail when the incident with the truck happened. If district attorneys can get a single conviction—for the robbery, for murder, for attempted murder, or for the hit-and-run—Knight is likely to end his life in jail.

"They’ve got him in two separate courthouses on multiple third strikes," says Michael Kraut, a veteran L.A. criminal defense lawyer and former prosecutor.

Could Knight still get off? Sure—but it won't be easy. First, he could be acquitted in the paparazzi case, or prosecutors could lower it to a lesser charge, say grand theft person. As Kraut notes, the facts don't show a typical robbery, and the judge seemed sympathetic in an earlier hearing.

Then Knight would need to beat the charges from the January 29 incident. A jury would have to conclude that Knight genuinely feared for his life, and that a reasonable person would have feared for his life in the same situation. That would make the use of a deadly weapon, in this case a truck, justifiable. Or, the jury could conclude that Knight genuinely feared for his life, but that a reasonable person in the same situation would not have. That could result in a manslaughter conviction instead. But if the jury decides that Knight didn't feel fear and that a reasonable person wouldn't have felt fear, he'd be convicted.

"In a perfect world for Suge Knight, he wouldn't know these people," Kraut says: It would make it more credible that he was reasonably afraid. But Knight knew Carter, and as Kraut noted, most reports seem to cast Carter in a positive light.

Worse, for Knight, he will have to testify. "He has to take the stand—it's the only way to show self-defense," Kraut says. Once he's under oath, the floodgates are opened. "Then he's cross-examined on every single thing he's ever done. It's an impossibility to find someone who's always finding themselves in these situations." His one edge is that he was shot in August, so he could suggest he is reasonably edge about people trying to harm him.

Plus the DA has a trump card: the hit-and-run charges. "I can't prove what's in his mind on murder or attempted murder," Kraut says. "In a hit-and-run, the law says it doesn't matter who is at fault. An individual must stop and render aid if possible, or get to a safe location and call for help."

If Knight left the scene and delayed contacting police, or called a lawyer first, he'd have a hard time avoiding the charge.

That's one likely reason Knight has pleaded not guilty: He has no incentive to cooperate with prosecutors, since conviction on any charge would be a third strike. Unfortunately for him, since he's up on two separate third-strike charges, prosecutors also have little incentive to drop his charges or work out a plea deal.

What's amazing is that Knight hasn't been put away sooner, given his rap sheet and given California's typically tough three-strikes law. Critics have successfully fought for revisions to the law, noting, for example, non-violent offenders who received life terms. Knight, however, has been lucky, and he has likely received top-shelf legal representation, which has allowed him to serve minimal time and avoid prison for some of his offenses. But it will take some very wily lawyering or a lucky procedural break for him to avoid a long stay in the pen now.