Jailed Death Row CEO Loses Bid For Freedom

Court reverses ruling that would have opened door to a reduction in Marion 'Suge' Knight's sentence.

Imprisoned Death Row Records impresario Marion "Suge" Knight's hopes of being released on bond suffered a major setback in a California courtroom recently that will keep him behind bars for the foreseeable future.

The man who helped launch the careers of such important rap-artists as Tupac Shakur, Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, will, for now, continue serving his nine-year term in a Central California prison for assaulting two rappers.

"They've denied [his appeal] at this point," said Steve Matthews, supervising deputy attorney general for the state of California, referring to a move that could have put the infamous record producer back on the streets immediately. "Until the court of appeal is done with him, whether they issue another opinion, ask for more information or issue a ruling, he isn't going anywhere."

A ruling by the California Court of Appeals last month overturned an Aug. 26 judgment that could have led to a reconsideration of the former record-label CEO's sentence. L.A. Superior Court Judge Stephen Czuleger sent Knight to prison for nine years in 1996 when he ruled that Knight had violated the terms of his probation from the 1995 assault conviction, to which he had pleaded no contest.

Knight had been caught on videotape kicking the late L.A.-resident Orlando Anderson, an alleged gang member, during a fight in the lobby of Las Vegas' MGM Grand Hotel. For violating the terms of his probation, Czuleger ruled, Knight was required to serve his full nine-year term for the assaults, which stemmed from a 1992 incident in which he attacked two rappers.

But the Court of Appeals found in August that it was unclear what the trial court judge in the 1995 case meant when he originally sentenced Knight to nine years of prison time. This finding opened the door to a re-sentencing for Knight that could have drastically reduced his sentence, to perhaps as little as probation.

According to Matthews, his office filed a petition for a re-hearing with the State of California Court of Appeals on Sept. 8, a request that was granted on Sept. 24.

"We argued that the opinion from the Court of Appeals left out some facts that would have shown the [Court of Appeals'] judgment was in error and that the court should reverse itself," Matthews said.

The attorney general's petition argued that Czuleger was correct in his belief that he had no choice but to sentence Knight to nine years.

Knight's lawyer, David Kenner, however, argued that the 1995 ruling was ambiguous and left other options for Knight besides a nine-year term, a position the court had originally agreed with in August's now-vacated ruling. Matthews said the successful bid to overturn that ruling was unusual, noting that he had not seen such a petition granted in the five years he has been in office.

Neither Kenner nor a Death Row spokesperson could not be reached for comment by press time.

The 32-year-old Knight is currently serving the second year of his term at the California Men's Colony prison in San Luis Obispo, Calif., for the Sept. 12, 1996, incident in Las Vegas.

Only hours after the incident, Death Row rap-star Shakur was fatally shot while riding in a car with Knight.

Last month, Kenner said he believed Knight's release was imminent and that a new probation hearing would occur by mid-October.

"The court even indicated last time that if he could do less than nine years he would," Kenner said. "This was a draconian sentence of the situation, and he's already served two years. We hope that he will be released unconditionally."

Matthews, whose office is awaiting a new ruling from the appeals court on the length of Knight's term, given the probation violation, said the only possibility for Knight's being granted bail at this point is from the appeals court itself.

It is unclear, even if he is released, whether or not Knight can re-establish the once-exalted position of the Death Row label, which he co-founded in 1992. The label has sold more than 25 million records, including such multi-platinum albums as Dr. Dre's The Chronic and Doggystyle, from the artist formerly known as Snoop Doggy Dogg.

The label began to struggle prior to Knight's incarceration, following the 1996 defection of co-founder/producer Dr. Dre (born Andre Young) and the death of Shakur. The subsequent loss of Shakur's unreleased material and the defection this year of its last remaining superstar, Dogg (born Calvin Broadus), also had a negative impact.

Death Row is currently the target of a federal racketeering probe, according to the L.A. Times, which reported that Knight and unnamed associates are being investigated for alleged tax violations, links to street gangs, drug trafficking, money laundering and acts of violence.