The man accused of gunning down Nipsey Hussle doesn’t deny he shot the celebrated rapper in a stunning strip-mall slaying three years ago — only that it was a premeditated act that also involved the attempted murders of two other men, his lawyer said Wednesday in an opening statement that shed new light on how the long-awaited murder trial likely will unfold.
“This is a case about the heat of passion,” public defender Aaron Jansen said, urging jurors in the Los Angeles courtroom to determine the killing was voluntary manslaughter, not murder. “On March 31, 2019, Eric Ronald Holder Jr. shot and killed Nipsey Hussle on Slauson and Crenshaw, in front of a clothing store, Marathon clothing.” He claimed Hussle had accused his client of “snitching,” and Holder became “so enflamed and enraged,” he opened fire “a mere nine minutes later,” before he had time to “cool off.”
“The heat of passion in this case relates to snitching,” Jansen continued. “In the gang world, in the criminal world, there are images from movies, Scarface, where rats, or snitches, have gotten their just desserts.”
As Jansen spoke, an image from Scarface showing a man in a noose appeared on a large TV in the courtroom. The scene involved a character who snitched being hung from a helicopter for the cardinal sin of gang life. Deputy District Attorney John McKinney objected to the chilling image, and Jansen moved on.
Holder, 32, watched quietly at the defense table as his lawyer spoke. He was dressed in a blue suit and white sneakers in place of the jail uniform he’s worn since his arrest two days after Hussle’s death. He had no reaction as McKinney started his opening presentation with harrowing new police bodycam video showing the last seconds of Hussle’s life.
McKinney described the incident as “an explosion of violence.” In the bodycam video, Hussle was lying on the ground, receiving chest compressions from his brother, Samiel Asghedom. A desperate voice counted each one out, “1-2-3-4-5-6-7.”
Hussle’s family members did not attend the first day of the trial Wednesday.
Hussle, who won two posthumous Grammys in 2020 for his songs “Racks in the Middle” and “Higher,” grew up in the same South Los Angeles neighborhood where he died. The rapper born Ermias Asghedom was known for pouring his time and money back into that community. Before his death, he’d been nominated for a Best Rap Album Grammy for his acclaimed Victory Lap album and attended the February awards show with his daughter Emani and partner Lauren London, the mother of his young son.
By now, the rough outlines of the first-degree murder case are well known. Holder was captured on multiple surveillance cameras driving up to the store, which Hussle co-owned, in the passenger seat of a 2016 White Chevrolet Cruze; talking to Hussle in the parking lot; leaving to eat some food; and returning to the scene toting two guns that he used to open fire on Hussle as the beloved and rising rapper leaned against a car next to the two other alleged victims in the case, Kerry Lathan, who ended up shot once in back, and Shermi Villanueva, who allegedly suffered a graze wound after a bullet struck his belt buckle.
McKinney told jurors they would hear from at least two witnesses that Hussle and Holder’s initial conversation involved the two members of the Rollin’ 60s gang discussing “something to do with snitching.” He said Holder left that initial meeting with his female friend driving the Cruze, ate some chili cheese fries, told the friend to wait for him in a nearby parking lot and stalked back to Marathon with a black semiautomatic handgun in one hand and a smaller silver revolver in the other.
The prosecutor played black-and-white video of the shooting twice, once at a slower speed.
“Mr. Holder walks between two parked cars where the gentlemen are, and he starts shooting. If you look closely, you can at one point see him shoot from the left hand and the right hand. You’ll see him retreat back after a few shots, and then he goes back and he shoots some more, and he retreats back, and then he goes back, and he shoots even more,” McKinney told the jury.
“The only thing that was said prior to the shooting was [when] Eric was walking in between the two cars, looking at Nipsey and saying, ‘You’re through.’ And Nipsey, after being shot, responding, ‘You got me,’” McKinney said, telling the jury that his office charged “not just murder but premeditated and deliberate murder.”
“You’re going to hear and see evidence that he had plenty of opportunity to think about what he was going to do before he did it,” the prosecutor said. He then zeroed in on the shocking moment just before Holder ran from the scene, when he hovered over Hussle’s body crumpled on the asphalt and kicked him in the head. “I think you will find by that kick to the head at the end that it was a very personal attack,” he said.
Holder had pleaded not guilty to one count of murder, two counts of attempted murder for the bullets that struck Lathan and Villanueva, two counts of assault with a firearm, and one count of possession of a firearm by a felon. If convicted as charged, he faces a possible life sentence.
Jansen said Wednesday that Lathan was hit accidentally, and “Mr. Villanueva may have been grazed, we’re not sure. He didn’t give a statement to the officers. He refused to be interviewed.”
After opening statements ended, Herman Douglas was called by McKinney as the first witness of the trial. Wearing a black jacket and shirt both emblazoned with Hussle’s face, Douglas, 49, confirmed the rapper arrived at Marathon unannounced the day of the shooting and was talking with friends when Holder appeared unexpectedly.
A self-described former Rollin 60’s gang member, Douglas worked for Hussle at the store and pointed himself out in surveillance video from that day wearing his signature cowboy hat. He said Hussle recognized Holder as soon as he pulled up, calling him by his gang name.
“Is that Shitty?” Hussle asked, according to Douglas.
Douglas said Hussle greeted Holder and mentioned that he heard a rumor Holder had “some paperwork floating around” and needed to “take care of it” to “clear” himself.
“It was more like he was looking out for him. That’s how I took the conversation,” Douglas said, adding that he had no sense Hussle was in danger after making the statement. “Nip was on a friendship-type thing.”
Douglas said he was inside the store’s break room when he heard shots ring out minutes later. He ran outside and found Hussle lying in the parking lot on his back. Douglas recalled trying to “plug” one of the bullet holes with his bare hands as he prayed for his friend.
“He was still breathing till he got to the ambulance,” Douglas said. “He just kept trying to get up, raise up.”
Hussle was shot at least 10 times, including by a bullet that severed his spinal cord, McKinney said. “He was shot literally from the bottom of his feet to the top of his head,” the prosecutor said in his opening. “Three different bullets perforated his lungs. One transected his spine, so even if he survived, he would have been paraplegic.”