JANUARY 7, 2011 2:37 PM EDT
Those who arrived as spectators at the Federal courthouse in downtown Los Angeles on July 6th expecting to observe the fourth day of testimony in the Notorious B.I.G. wrongful-death suit swiftly discovered that they were on hand to bear witness to something else: history. In an announcement that stunned everyone who had been following the case in the media, presiding judge Florence-Marie Cooper abruptly suspended the proceedings and called a mistrial. Only a handful in the courtroom knew of the remarkable events of the previous days: an anonymous late-night phone tip; the extraordinary lockdown of a Los Angeles Police Department division; a stash of secret, incriminating documents. But the following day, Judge Cooper issued a written ruling stating that she had come to believe the LAPD had deliberately concealed a massive amount of evidence that attested to the involvement of rogue officers in the rapper's slaying.
The implications of the judge's decision extended far beyond the mystery of B.I.G.'s unsolved murder. For months, Los Angeles' most prominent political figures and police officials, along with the city's most influential media, had been insisting that this legal claim by B.I.G.'s family was nothing more than a nuisance suit, based on an outlandish conspiracy theory that attempted to tie a group of LAPD officers —affiliated with Suge Knight's Death Row Records and the Bloods gang — to not only the murders of B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur, but also to the origins of the biggest police-corruption case in Los Angeles history, the so-called Rampart scandal. Yet here was one of the most respected district court judges in Southern California declaring in open court that the LAPD's lead investigator on the B.I.G. murder case for the past six years had deliberately concealed hundreds of pages of documents. The contents of these pages not only supported the conspiracy theory, but also implicated the central figure in the Rampart scandal —the disgraced detective who was the source of the whole sorry, sordid affair — as one of those involved in the rapper's death.
This article appeared in the December 15, 2005 issue of Rolling Stone. The issue is available in the online archive.
The judge's declaration of a mistrial provided one of those breathtaking moments when the facade of a Big Lie is peeled back to reveal the men behind the curtain. Suddenly, the central figures in this scandal were not the collection of corrupt police officers whose double-faced criminality has been the focus of both public and private investigations, but rather the people who hold the levers of control at the city's most powerful institutions.
Back in 2000, it looked as if all the skeletons rattling around the scandal had been locked away in deep closets. But in the spring of 2001, theories that had been discarded by both the police and the L.A. media were explored by articles in Rolling Stone and The New Yorker.Perry Sanders, the iconoclastic lawyer who would spearhead the wrongful-death lawsuit, first became involved in the case in June of that year. An attorney for murdered rap star Notorious B.I.G., a.k.a. Christopher Wallace, asked Sanders to read the Rolling Stone article. "I thought there were grounds for filing a lawsuit just based on reading the story," says Sanders. Because he takes cases only on contingency, however, the attorney had to decide whether he could justify spending hundreds of thousands of dollars and several years of his life to sustain a federal court claim against the city of Los Angeles.