L.A. Times Lies About Notorious BIG
Murder Suspect  Brill's Content Report

Posted May 23
Updated May 24
Clarification May 26

NOTORIOUS L.A.T.

In a December, 1999, front page story, the Los Angeles Times ran the name
and picture of a man it identified as a suspect in the murder of rapper
Notorious B.I.G. So what did the paper's editors do when one of its
reporters discovered the story was wrong? They fought amongst themselves,
and sat on the facts.
By John Cook
It's every newspaper editor's nightmare: Two of your star reporters identify
a police suspect in a high-profile celebrity murder. You give it big play:
page one, above the fold. You print the suspect's name and publish his
photograph. The story turns out to be dead wrong. What do you do next?
If you're an editor at the Los Angeles Times, you do absolutely nothing.
That's what happened for more than a month after Times editors realized that
their December, 1999, story identifying a man named Amir Muhammad as a
suspect in the 1997 murder of the rapper Christopher Wallace, a k a The
Notorious B.I.G., was wrong. By early March, according to two newsroom
staffers, the lead detective on the case told a Times reporter that Muhammad
was not a current suspect in the murder, and hadn't been one when the
original story ran in Dec. The Times waited until May 3 to report this fact.
THE BLOCKBUSTER STORY THAT WASN'T
Why did the paper wait so long to correct the record? The follow-up story
was delayed nearly two months while editors fought over whether the paper
should simply report the new facts of the case, or revisit the mistakes that
were made in the first story that wrongly identified Muhammad, according to
two editors and one reporter at the Times.
That original story, by Metro reporters Matt Lait and Scott Glover, was a
big scoop for the paper. Lait and Glover thought they had uncovered a
connection between the rapper's murder and the Rampart Division
police-corruption scandal, a story the same pair had broken in September.
The Times reporters wrote that police suspected an ex-Los Angeles cop named
David Mack in a murder-for-hire scheme to kill Wallace. And since Mack was
once partners with the officer at the center of the corruption scandal, a
potential blockbuster link between the two stories existed, and the L.A.
Times would be out in front on both.
Under the murder-for-hire theory, Mack's triggerman was his college friend,
Amir Muhammad, who appeared to match details the police had on the shooter.
Even though the reporters Lait and Glover were unable to find Muhammad, the
paper ran the story, printing his name and driver's license photo.
THE STORY FALLS APART
But even on cursory examination, the article didn't hold up. It quoted just
two sources on the record, both of whom dismissed the theory -- and didn't
reveal until later in the article that police detectives were also pursuing
a second theory for the murder that didn't involve Muhammad. The article
even stated that police sources "refused to say which theory, if any, was
being given more credence."
Chuck Philips says he was skeptical when he saw the piece. A veteran
reporter at the Times business desk, Philips, 47, had shared a Pulitzer for
beat reporting in 1999 for his coverage of the music business, a beat that
involves covering a lot of crime stories. "Chuck is sort of the world's
authority on rap violence," says his editor, Mark Saylor.
Philips had been following the Wallace investigation closely, but had never
heard about the Mack-Muhammad theory reported by Lait and Glover. So he set
out to find Amir Muhammad. It took him three days, according to Philips and
Muhammad's lawyer. 
After a few weeks of cajoling, Philips says he convinced Muhammad to speak
on the record, and by the first week of March the business reporter had
heard another version of events from David Martin, the lead detective on the
Wallace murder case. Martin told the reporter Muhammad had not been a
suspect when the story ran. The LAPD officer in charge of the unit
investigating the crime, Lieutenant Al Michelena, confirmed to Brill's
Content that Muhammad is not a suspect and was not one when the Times story
ran in December.
Asked about that, L.A. Times executive editor Leo Wolinsky said, "That's
revisionist history. There's a bit of a disconnect within the police
department."
Muhammad declined to comment for this article, but his lawyer, Bryant
Calloway, described his client as a 40-year-old Southern California mortgage
broker with a young daughter. He says his client had nothing to do with
Wallace's murder and had no idea his name had surfaced in connection with
the case until he saw the L.A. Times article on December 9. Muhammad's first
thought upon reading Glover and Lait's piece, says Calloway, was "concern
for his safety and the safety of his family." He feared that an irate
Notorious B.I.G. fan might try to avenge the murder. "His life stopped,"
says Calloway. "The first three or four days he didn't leave the house."
"THE UGLIEST EXPERIENCE I'VE EVER HAD"
In March, after tracking Muhammad down and hearing the lead detective's
contradiction of Lait and Glover's December article, Philips says he filed a
follow-up article to Wolinsky on March 17. (Wolinsky disputes that, and says
he first saw the story on March 28.) Philips described what happened next as
"the ugliest experience I've ever had in any story I've worked on."
City editor Bill Boyarsky was apprehensive about a Times reporter
contradicting Glover and Lait, according to two newsroom staffers. Lait and
Glover are considered rising stars, and many staffers think their coverage
of the Rampart Division corruption scandal might win the paper a Pulitzer.
Metro editors were opposed to any follow-up story on the Wallace case that
raised questions about the reporting on the original story, according to two
newsroom insiders. A Times staffer described their view as, "their guys had
not made a mistake and that the original story was correct." Says Boyarsky,
"I felt it shouldn't run as an analysis and attack on the previous story."
But the business desk's Philips and Saylor thought the follow-up story
should reflect the fact that the Times had made a mistake. "I think that
Matt [Lait] and Scott [Glover] approached the original story honorably,"
says Saylor. "My concern and Chuck [Philips's] concern was only dealing
fairly with the story as the facts came out later."
(Glover declined to comment for this article. Lait would say only that "the
first story speaks for itself" and that he was "supportive of the second
story and thought it should go in.")
As the editorial turf war between the Metro and Business desks dragged on --
"It got to be like the Northern Ireland talks," says Boyarsky -- Muhammad
waited for the paper to report that he wasn't a suspect.
(All of this was unfolding in the shadow the Staples Center's scandal, the
purchase of the paper's parent company by Chicago's Tribune Co., and the
ouster of editor in chief Michael Parks.)
On April 21 (Parks's last day) reporter Philips learned a final version of
his follow-up story had been approved and would appear in the April 22
edition, the Saturday before Easter, a traditionally slow news day.
When Philips saw that version, he says he objected; certain quotes from
Muhammad, for instance, were missing. Plus, his editor, Saylor -- who
according to both camps had been promised an opportunity to sign off on the
final edit -- wasn't in the office that day. After contacting Saylor for
support and threatening to remove his own byline, Philips succeeded in
keeping the article out of the next day's paper.
Almost two weeks later, on May 3, 2000, a compromise version of Philips's
story that did not explicitly fault the Times for running the original
article appeared in the Metro section. It was five months after Lait and
Glover's front-page mistake.
NO RETRACTION
After weeks of negotiating, why the sudden rush to get the story out?
Philips says Wolinsky, the executive editor, told him that "they wanted to
get it in before John Carroll (the new editor in chief) arrived."
Wolinsky denies fast-tracking the story for April 22. "The story went into
the paper the absolute moment it was ready to go," he says. "[It] went in
when it was adequately edited, written, and reported." City editor Bill
Boyarsky also denies rushing the article, but admits that he wanted the
problem "cleaned up" before Carroll's arrival.
In the final article, Philips quotes Muhammad as asking, "How can something
so completely false end up on the front page of a major newspaper?" The
story did not answer that question, though it did clear Muhammad's name.
But that may not be enough. In January, Muhammad's lawyer, Calloway, wrote a
letter to the L.A.Times calling the original story "clearly defamatory" and
demanding that the paper issue a retraction. As of May 23, the Times had not
done so, and Calloway says Muhammad is considering suing the paper for
defamation of character.
"The horrendous thing about being associated with a crime," says Calloway,
"is that it plants a seed of doubt. People like to believe negative things
about others. And the Times gave them a doozy."

-------------------------------------
CORRECTIONS

Notorious L.A.T, May 24
CLARIFICATION
Our article about the Los Angeles Times identification of a suspect in the
killing of Notorious B.I.G. was inconsistent in its reference to the length
of time that Times editors knew the original story was incorrect.
The sentence containing the inconsistency read, "That's what happened for
two months after Times editors realized that their December, 1999,
story...was wrong," It now reads, "That's what happened for more than a
month after Times editors realized that their December, 1999, story...was
wrong."

JUNE 2000
CLARIFICATION
In May's "Face-Off" column about the London libel suit brought by Holocaust
denier David Irving, contributor Cynthia Ozick wrote, "By the middle of
February...Irving...had put up a David Irving website, which includes a
lengthy and not particularly friendly article from The Atlantic Monthly as
well as the voluminous daily transcripts of the [trial] proceedings." In
fact, Irving's website pre-existed the trial, although it did not include
information on his libel trial until the proceedings began, in January. On
April 11, the judge ruled against Irving, calling him an "active Holocaust
denier."





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