Facing the Rap

updated 11/20/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/20/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

THE SCENE'S LOWLIGHTS WERE depressingly familiar: harsh words, shots fired from a car, a young black man breathing his last. The fatal confrontation that played itself out at a Los Angeles park two summers ago would have escaped much notice beyond the working-class Palms district if not for the driver of the black Jeep from which the shots were fired: Snoop Doggy Dogg, one of rap music's biggest stars.

On Nov. 13, lawyers were to begin questioning potential jurors in the first-degree murder case against Snoop (whose real name is Calvin Broadus), 24, and his bodyguard McKinley Lee, 25, who is charged with pulling the trigger of the 9-mm handgun that killed Ethiopian immigrant Philip Woldemariam, 20. On Aug. 25, 1993, Woldemariam got into a quarrel with Sean Abrams, 26, a childhood friend of the rapper, outside the Palms apartment where Snoop was living. When the brawny Lee headed downstairs to break up the quarrel, Woldemariam sped away in a car driven by one of his two companions. Within an hour, Snoop took the Jeep, with Lee in the passenger seat and Abrams in the rear, to nearby Woodbine Park, where they encountered Woldemariam eating Mexican food.

What happened next remains in dispute. Defense lawyers, who say the victim had threatened Snoop twice before, say Woldemariam reached for a 380 handgun, forcing Lee to fire in self-defense. But prosecution witnesses say Lee drew first. And the coroner found that Woldemariam, who was armed, had been shot in the back. "This was a classic gang-mentality type of case," says L.A. deputy district attorney Ed Nison. "You have the guys pursuing the victim to show [their] superiority."

Prosecutors say Woldemariam was involved with some street punks known as the By Yerself Hustlers, and that the confrontation started when Abrams flashed the hand sign of a local gang. (Authorities believe Snoop and Abrams were gang members, in the Long Beach Insane Crips, a charge they both deny.) Since they pursued the victim, Nison says, the defendants can't claim self-defense. Both Snoop and Lee face 25 years to life in prison. "This ain't no joke, we being in there," Snoop told PEOPLE of the trial. "This is a life-and-death situation."

Considering that grave outlook, Snoop has hardly lived the life of a typical murder suspect. Released on $1 million bail, he has seen greater success since his arrest than before. His debut album, Doggystyle, has sold more than 4.5 million copies, generating about $40 million. He was named best rapper in Rolling Stone's 1995 readers' and critics' polls, and his 1994 video Doggy Dogg World won MTV's award for best rap video.

A Long Beach, Calif., native, Snoop was raised, along with two half brothers, mainly by his mother, Beverly Broadus, 44. He began rapping professionally in 1991 after serving a year in jail for peddling cocaine. He plans to marry longtime girlfriend Chanté, mother of his 15-month-old son, Chordé. They live together in the San Gabriel Valley in a three-bedroom home complete with a swimming pool and basketball court.

Snoop's success troubles the family of Woldemariam, which fled Eritrea, formerly part of Ethiopia, in 1979 amid civil war. At the time, Woldemariam, the youngest of seven children, was only 6. His father, Ghilamariam, 54, now owns a construction company. "I'm afraid the Dogg's celebrity status will cloud the issue," says Woldemariam's sister Sophia, 24.

Such speculation isn't the only parallel between Snoop's trial and that of O.J. Simpson, which took place in an adjacent courtroom in the L.A. County Superior Court. Not only did Simpson's lawyer Johnnie Cochran successfully represent Abrams (against whom murder charges, were dropped Nov. 6), but the defense is building its case on the ineptitude of the L.A. Police Department, which destroyed 13 pieces of evidence, including the victim's bloody clothes and shell casings from the crime scene. The LAPD blames the destruction on a computer error, but prosecutors say the material isn't important and that they have at least a dozen eyewitnesses to the crime. And this trial won't qualify as home entertainment: Superior Court Judge Paul Flynn has barred cameras from the courtroom.

As for Snoop, he says he and his family are "just ready for everything to be over with, so the truth will come out." As for the Woldemariams, they are waiting until the trial ends to return Philip's body to Eritrea, where he will be buried in farmland next to his grandfather, for whom he was named.

THOMAS FIELDS-MEYER
JEFF SCHNAUFER in Los Angeles

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