Notorious B.I.G. Wrongful-Death Suit Can Go To Trial, Judge Rules

Rapper's mother, widow filed suit two years ago against city of Los Angeles, former and current LAPD police chiefs.

Ever since the unsolved murder of Notorious B.I.G. seven years ago, there have been numerous theories about what really happened — and one of those theories, which points a finger at the LAPD, is about to get tested in court.

The rapper's mother, Voletta Wallace, and his widow, singer Faith Evans, along with other heirs filed a wrongful-death suit two years ago in federal court against the city of Los Angeles as well as former and current LAPD police chiefs, and it's just been cleared to go to trial.

The lawyers on both sides have been quietly arguing motions in pretrial for the past two years, but the lawyers representing the estate of the rapper, whose given name was Christopher Wallace, just prevailed in a hearing held on June 21, with the court denying a motion to dismiss the case. Attorney Perry Sanders called this victory "huge" (see "LAPD Chief Interfered With Biggie Murder Probe, Suit Says").

"The motion to dismiss alleged that we couldn't possibly prove to a jury that [former officer] David Mack acted under the color of law even if we proved he committed the crime," Sanders said. "The judge, after reviewing the totality of the circumstances, determined that a jury could find that Mack acted under color of law if they determined he did the crime."

This issue of "under color of law" — which means committing an act with the authority of the law, or at least supposed authority — becomes the heart of the case, since Mack, the accused police officer, was off duty on the date of Wallace's murder. According to the theory behind the suit, Mack conspired with a man named Amir Muhammad to murder Biggie (see "Ex-Police Officer Suspected In Notorious B.I.G. Shooting"). But instead of investigating, disciplining and/or prosecuting the officers involved, the suit alleges, various LAPD chiefs "intentionally, willfully and recklessly delayed and stopped the investigation" to protect the force and the city (see "The Death Of Biggie Smalls On The Week In Rock").

According to the summary judgment filed in U.S. district court in California's Central District on June 30, the investigation into Wallace's murder indicates that the suspects had access to non-public information that would have been available only to police officers, including the surveillance of the rapper, the composition and location of police officers at the Petersen Automotive Museum where the rapper was attending an afterparty for the "Soul Train" Awards, tactics used by the police in protecting large events, tactical frequencies used by police radios, the location of the rapper's car and his exit plan, and how the police officers would respond to the shooting. "In addition, it appeared that police radios were used to monitor the location and response of law enforcement to the shooting, as well as to facilitate escaping after the shooting, concealing the vehicle, and disposing of the weapon," reads Judge Florence-Marie Cooper's summary judgment.

As to the issue of whether these actions occurred with the LAPD's authority, the court decided that this is a "triable issue of fact." The issue of "color of law" doesn't require the action to be authorized, but only that it was made possible because the position is abused. "To find that color of state law was present, the police officer's actions must have been performed while the police officer was acting, purporting to act, or pretending to act in the performance of his or her official duties," the judgment reads. "In contrast, an off-duty police officer who neither acts in accordance with police regulations, nor invokes the authority of the police department acts as a private citizen."

However, the fact that Mack was off duty on the night of Wallace's murder, the court ruled, "is not controlling." Mack could have abused his official authority, and purported authority, to access the non-public information, and he could have accessed police radio communications using an LAPD radio, which he could only do by using his position as a police officer. "It is the nature of the act performed, not the clothing of the actor or even the status of being on duty or off duty, which determines whether the officer has acted under color of law," the judgment reads.

Mack is currently serving a 14-year federal prison term for robbing a bank in 1997 and has made no secret of his association with the gang the Bloods. Both Mack and Muhammad have previously denied involvement in Wallace's murder.

The wrongful death suit goes to trial on October 5.