OPINION: Murder or self-defense? Chaka Zulu’s case has many watching

It was an ugly late-night beatdown in a parking lot, one that ended in a shooting death not unlike others that have plagued Atlanta.

But this one’s different. This involves Chaka Zulu, a successful music exec and longtime manager of Atlanta rapper Ludacris. Zulu is charged with murder after one of the men who had pummeled him seconds earlier was shot to death. It’s all captured on very clear security video camera footage distributed by the popular website TMZ, along with a stop-action tick-tock of the events, complete with arrows identifying the combatants. Zulu’s lawyers say the video is legit.

This case also brings up questions about Georgia’s “stand your ground” law and includes a very public lobbying effort to sway Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis from moving forward with the charges levied by Atlanta police. The effort includes former Mayor Kasim Reed, a longtime friend of Zulu, whose full name is Ahmed Chaka Zulu Obafemi. There has also been public support from numerous music stars, including 50 Cent.

On Sept. 22, several top-flight defense attorneys held a news conference insisting Zulu, who was shot himself, was simply defending himself from a potentially deadly attack. One attorney accused police of rushing to pursue murder charges and using their client as a political football. The shooting was June 26; Zulu turned himself in to police on Sept. 13 and was released from jail the same day on $200,000 bond.

“Let’s be clear,” said Mawuli Mel Davis, a well-known civil rights attorney, “APD is under fire. We are not going to allow the fact that they have as many unsolved murders as they have, and they have failed the city on so many levels. We’re not going to allow them to use our client, because of his celebrity status, to somehow gain some favor. There has to be some sort of politically motivated reason.”

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

In a statement, Atlanta police said investigators filed charges after a two-month investigation and “collaboration” with Willis’ office.

Davis and fellow attorneys Gabe Banks, a former Fulton gang crimes prosecutor, and veteran defense lawyer Akil Secret, say they’re incredulous at the charges. Davis said people who have watched the video taken outside Zulu’s Peachtree Road restaurant, APT 4B, “are astonished he was charged.”

It all started after Artez Benton, 23, who was killed, and his friends tried to get into an invite-only evening at the restaurant, Zulu’s lawyers said. “These men were upset they couldn’t get in and they came back out wanting their money back,” Banks said. One member of the group then chest-bumped Zulu, who pushed the man against a car, the video shows.

Benton and two more men rushed Zulu, pummeled him from the side and back and knocked him to the ground, where he got pounded. Zulu’s assistant was punched in the face and crumpled to the ground.

Zulu got pulled from the melee and was behind a big guy, perhaps a bouncer. Benton and another man kept pushing toward Zulu, like they want another piece of him. Zulu didn’t retreat or crawl away; he came from around the big guy with his pistol, faced Benton, who was perhaps four feet from him. Benton froze as he faced the armed Zulu and was shot in the chest.

Banks said his client “has no duty or obligation to retreat” even after he was pulled away and then came back up with his gun.

Zulu was shot in the back and continues recovering from what his lawyers called “nearly fatal” injuries.

“How in the world does a woman get punched on video and that person does not get arrested?” Reed asked me, referring to Zulu’s assistant. Good question. Police say other arrests are possible.

While Zulu’s lawyers express “astonishment” that their client was charged, other lawyers and a former homicide cop (who are not connected with this case) are not so sure.

Credit: Raymond Hagans, Special

Credit: Raymond Hagans, Special

“This is a complicated event, with several people involved moving fast in real time, making it possible for someone trying to defend themselves to overreact and not stop firing when the initial threat has ceased,” said Danny Agan, the retired head of APD’s homicide squad. “However, this is not a cut-and-dried case of self defense.

“A huge consideration is the fact that after Zulu was rescued by the guys who broke up the pummeling, he had an option to walk away, to go back inside, instead he turned and walked right back into the area where some of his assailants were and then started shooting,” Agan said. “He was no longer being beaten. He can’t claim self defense when he is the one continuing the violence by going after his assailants.”

Former DeKalb County DA J Tom Morgan also weighed in. “Based on the video, and if the (TMZ) article’s interpretation of the video is correct, I believe Mr. Zulu has a viable claim of self-defense. Remember the 1994 Bernard Goetz shooting of the four youths on the NY subway. He was acquitted by a jury.”

But after viewing the video again, Morgan hedged, noting that Zulu was pulled from his attackers and then came back to fire the fatal shot. He said Willis should send the case to the grand jury and let the jurors decide “if it’s self defense or retaliation for getting his butt whipped.”

Defense attorney Robert Rubin said that looking at a video without sound doesn’t provide a full picture of the scene. But, he added, Zulu “is not in danger when he comes around (the bouncer) with the gun. Looking at a silent movie, it doesn’t look like self defense.”

Rubin said lobbying prosecutors to lessen or drop charges is not unusual. But doing so in such a public manner might backfire. Pressuring Willis, who is prosecuting alleged gang members and perhaps a former president, might not be the best strategy, he said.

Willis’ office told me she “treats all people equally.”