Testimony is set to resume Tuesday in the trial of Eric Ronald Holder Jr., who is charged with murder in the shooting of rapper Nipsey Hussle more than three years ago.
On Monday, jurors heard a prosecution witness testify that Holder did not seem upset while speaking to the musician that day — and that she did not suspect the defendant might be planning a shooting when she saw him loading bullets into a gun soon after the conversation.
Bryannita Nicholson — who is due back on the stand Tuesday to continue her testimony — told the downtown Los Angeles jury that she saw Holder Jr. “putting bullets in” a gun while she was driving with him shortly after his March 31, 2019, discussion with the 33-year-old rapper in front of the musician’s South Los Angeles clothing store. She also said she told Holder to “put that away.”
Nicholson said Holder subsequently directed her where to wait, got out of the vehicle with some chili cheese fries he said he wanted to eat and told her that he’d be “right back” before walking out of her view.
When Deputy District Attorney John McKinney asked if she had “any thought, feeling or concern that he was going to do a shooting,” the woman responded, “No.”
She said she heard two gunshots while Holder was away from the vehicle and that Holder instructed her to “drive” after he returned. When she asked Holder what happened, he told her that she talked too much, the woman testified.
Nicholson — who said she met Holder just over a month earlier while she was working as a ride-share driver who dropped him off in Long Beach — testified that she called Hussle “fine” and told Holder she wanted to take a picture with him when they initially drove up and spotted him outside his store.
She told jurors that Holder got out of the car first and she heard him asking the rapper if he had told anyone that Holder had “snitched.”
“Did you ever get the sense that a fight was about to happen?” the prosecutor asked.
“No,” Nicholson responded. “I wasn’t afraid at all.”
She said Holder seemed “just normal” when they first drove around the block from the strip mall, explaining that it didn’t occur to her that he might be going back to the center with the gun she had seen.
The woman said she was “sad” to hear later that the rapper had been killed, and said Holder “brushed it off” when she asked him later about social media posts involving the shooting. She said the two were intimate on one occasion, but didn’t have a dating relationship.
In his opening statement last week, the prosecutor said the rapper had told Holder there was word on the street that he had been “snitching,” but there was “no hostility” before Holder left the parking lot and then returned firing two guns soon afterward to the strip mall.
Hussle was struck by at least 10 and possibly 11 bullets in an “explosion of violence,” McKinney said, noting that the rapper was “shot from literally the bottom of his feet to the top of his head.”
One of Holder’s attorneys, Aaron Jansen, conceded to jurors that his client “shot and killed” the rapper, but said the crime occurred in the “heat of passion.”
Holder, 32, was “so enraged” about the rapper’s accusation that he was a snitch that he returned nine minutes later “without thinking” and “acted without premeditation” in opening fire on him, the defense attorney told the panel.
Holder is charged with murdering the 33-year-old Hussle — whose real name was Ermias Joseph Asghedom — outside the rapper’s Hyde Park-area store.
An aspiring rapper, Holder is also charged with two counts of attempted murder and assault with a firearm involving two other people, along with one count of possession of a firearm by a felon. The charges include allegations that he personally and intentionally discharged a handgun and that he personally inflicted great bodily injury.
In other testimony Monday, one of the alleged victims, Shermi Villanueva, told the nine-woman, three-man panel that he was standing next to Hussle at the time of the shooting, heard the gunfire and “then I saw Nipsey fall.”
Villanueva said he “started to run” and realized that he had been grazed by a bullet when he felt some stinging, raised his shirt and saw blood. He testified that he waited for the gunfire to stop and then returned to check on Hussle and his own uncle, Kerry Lathan, who had fallen to the ground after being shot.
Hussle said, “He shot me. He shot me,” with Villanueva’s uncle telling him that he had been shot in the back, according to the witness.
Villanueva said his own injury was superficial and that he declined medical treatment.
Another witness, Ingrid Caston, testified that she heard shots that she thought sounded like fireworks and that she saw Hussle fall to the ground as she watched in disbelief.
“Then afterwards when he finished he kicked him and ran by me,” she said of the gunman.
Holder surrendered himself at a mental health clinic in Bellflower three days after the shooting, according to his lawyer.
He has remained behind bars since then.
After Hussle’s death, thousands of people were on hand in April 2019 for a service in his honor, with singer Stevie Wonder and rapper Snoop Dogg among those paying tribute to him.
In a letter that was read during the service, former President Barack Obama wrote, “While most folks look at the Crenshaw neighborhood where he grew up and see only gangs, bullets and despair, Nipsey saw potential. He saw hope. He saw a community that, even through its flaws, taught him to always keep going.”
The rapper-entrepreneur was posthumously honored with two Grammy Awards in 2020 for best rap performance for “Racks in the Middle” and for best rap/sung performance for “Higher.”