Two of Pop Smoke’s alleged murderers, Corey Walker and Keandre Rodgers, appeared for a pre-trial hearing on Monday wearing L.A. County-issued orange jumpsuits and medical facemasks in Room 30 of the Clara Shortridge Criminal Justice Center in Los Angeles. Instead of the defendants entering their pleas, attorneys at the hearing revealed that conflicting records of Keandre Rodgers’ date of birth raise a question of whether his case should be moved to juvenile court. Famed OJ Simpson prosecutor Christopher Darden is the defense attorney for Corey Walker.

Darden was not at the hearing on Monday; he sent another attorney to appear on his behalf. But his involvement in the case shouldn’t come as a surprise to hip-hop fans. In the spring of 2019, Darden briefly represented Eric Holder, the man accused of killing Nipsey Hussle. Darden received intense criticism from many for that decision, including stars like Meek Mill. Darden pulled out of the case after about a month, citing death threats against him and his family. Christopher Darden did not immediately respond to Complex’s request for comment about his role in Pop Smoke’s case.

Late at night on February 19, 2020, five males allegedly broke into a home rented by Pop Smoke, real name Bashar Barakah Jackson, in the Mt. Olympus neighborhood of the Hollywood Hills. According to the Associated Press, they used social media postings to track Pop Smoke to the house owned by Teddi Mellencamp (daughter of rocker John Mellencamp) and her husband Edwin Arroyave. During the home invasion robbery gone wrong, one of the five allegedly shot the rising rapper. He died after being transported to a local hospital.

In July 2020, Corey Walker and Keandre Rodgers were arrested on suspicion of murder, and Jaquan Murphy was held on suspicion of attempted murder. Murphy has not yet been charged in the case, and it remains unclear if he will be. The other two defendants remain unnamed because they are minors aged 17 and 15; they have been charged with murder and robbery. According to the LAPD, all of them are suspected South Los Angeles gang members.

Like everywhere else, COVID protocols have changed the operations in Los Angeles criminal courts, which affected Monday’s hearing. In addition to the usual walk through a metal detector, facemasks are also required for entry. Only ten people are allowed to wait for an elevator at once, and elevator capacities are even lower. Signs on the floor and walls remind people where to stand, urging everyone to respect social distancing.

Room 30 on the 5th floor is the first stop for all alleged felons as they enter into the court system in Los Angeles. The hallway serves as the criminal court’s COVID waiting room, complete with depressing fluorescent light. Classical music accompanies the sound of the cash register pinging from the concession shop right across the hallway, and every once in a while a loud flush from the men’s toilets changes the rhythm. An old payphone on the wall rings and no one answers. None of the face-masked and socially distant defendants, attorneys, or media outside Room 30 care to see who is on the other end of the line, especially the woman wearing a sweatshirt that says “Shhhhh, no one cares.” They have their own problems. Inside, most of the rows of benches are taped off like a crime scene, and only a handful of seats are available. 

On Monday, masked defendants Corey Walker and Keandre Rogers sat inside a plexiglass mini-room to the judge’s left, separate but visible. Two female bailiffs stood behind them and a third blocked the door’s only exit.

Judge Miguel Espinoza, masked, sat at the bench and started the hearing, first confirming the district attorney’s virtual presence on speaker phone. Before the judge could make a ruling on a preliminary issue of whether to allow the media to take pictures or video, Keandre Rodgers’ defense attorney Christopher Chaney raised the issue that his client’s birthday made him a minor at the time of the murder and claims against him may belong in juvenile court. This issue may also serve as a bar to allowing the media to record the proceedings.

In the ensuing conversation, the district attorney noted that Mr. Rodgers’ rap sheet includes three different birthdays—February 13, 2002, June 13, 2001, and June 13, 2002. If Mr. Rodgers was born on February 13, 2002, that would make him a minor on the night of the crime on February 19, 2020. If his birth date is one of the other two, he would have been an adult on the night of the murder and will remain in this court. The judge tasked Rodgers’ attorney to deliver written proof of his client’s age and gave the attorneys two days to resolve Mr. Rodgers’ date of birth.

Counsel for defendant Corey Walker raised no similar issues. He is an adult. His attorney did not enter a plea for Mr. Walker on Monday, but indicated that it would be ‘Not guilty.’ 

Finally, the district attorney raised the issue of placing Mr. Rodgers in “keep-away” for his safety and Judge Espinoza referred the matter to the Sheriff’s department for determination. 

Preliminary hearings are set to continue on Wednesday, August 26, 2020.

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