AUSTIN, Texas -- Fourteen months after an inner-city Housto teen-ager aimed his 9mm gun at the neck of a Texas state trooper outside Victoria and pulled the trigger, the question before the court is this: Does life imitate rap?
The answer will reverberate nationwide from the Austin courtroom -- from the boardrooms of the record industry to the mean streets of gangster rapper Tupac Amaru Shakur. It will be felt from the small Texas town of the trooper's widow to the jail cell of Ronald Ray Howard, a reputed cocaine dealer and seventh-grade dropout who killed the officer.
It's a high-stakes case that has raised numerous legal questions. They include how far the mantle of the First Amendment stretches and whether a rapper and his music distributor, like any other manufacturer, should be held liable for a product that ++ the slain trooper's widow, Linda Davidson, contends led to her husband's death.
Howard's own life hinges on whether explicit anti-police lyrics of "gangsta" rappers like Tupac, Gangster NIP and the Geto Boys -- his favorites -- played a role in the April 11, 1992, murder of Trooper Bill Davidson.
If so, should Howard, 19, convicted of capital murder June 8, get life in jail instead of the death penalty because of such influences?
A Travis County jury deliberated only 26 minutes before convicting the slim, quiet teen-ager. Now that jury must decide whether to sentence him to death or to life imprisonment.
The punishment phase began last week with the blasting beat of "gangsta" rap, played by the defense. The mostly white, mostly middle-age jurors shifted uncomfortably in their chairs as they listened to "Damned Shame," a grim story about South Park where "homeboys" have to pack pistols to survive violence inflicted by their own "brothers" and the police.
In a lawsuit, Ms. Davidson and her two children seek damages from Tupac, Interscope Records and Time Warner Inc. for gross negligence in writing and distributing music intended to "incite immediate lawless action."
Howard was listening to Tupac's "2pocalypse Now" tape just before and at the time of the shooting.
"It's a very tough thing to say to the public, but speech doesn't have to have high useful value to be protected. It just has to be speech," says Diane Zimmerman, a professor of tort and First Amendment law at New York University's law school.
"You can understand the officer's wife and family," she said. "It's a very human and a very understandable response, but it just can't be one that the law gives in to."
In fact, the courts nationwide have virtually always held that the First Amendment protects artists and media distributors from liability in cases in which a third party was induced to commit a violent act because of something he or she watched, listened to or read, as in the cases involving heavy metal musicians Ozzy Osbourne and Judas Priest.
Howard's attorney, Allen Tanner, is using the influence of gangster rap as an issue in the criminal trial. He contends that the music, along with Howard's life in the bleak Houston ghetto ** of South Park, virtually destined the youth to a life of crime.
"I think when he was pulled over down near Victoria, those songs blasting in his ears -- as to South Park and as to hating cops from Tupac Shakur -- I think it all just stressed him out at the moment, and he did a terrible thing," Mr. Tanner said.
Jackson County District Attorney Bobby Bell, who is prosecuting Howard in Austin after a change of venue, is seeking the death penalty.
"Whether or not it [gangster rap] caused him to shoot that trooper, I have no idea. But I can tell you this: It don't matter. It's not a defense. At best it's an explanation; it certainly isn't an excuse."