Bad Rap

Is Joshua Moore serving a 12-year sentence because of his taste in music?

Call it prosecutorial performance art. In late 1999, deputy district attorney Cheri Pham was prosecuting Joshua Adam Moore for two armed robberies. The 19-year-old Moore had no criminal record and received an outpouring of support from family members, friends and even his employer—all of whom described Moore, the blue-collar son of a dockwor-ker, as a hard-working, well-adjusted kid. By all accounts, including his own, Moore was the getaway driver for the second robbery, but he claims he didn't know a crime had been committed until after the fact. And other than a somewhat questionable eyewitness identification, Pham had only the slimmest of evidence against Moore in the first robbery.

What she did have were a few grainy photographs seized by police from Moore's bedroom. One showed Moore, a suburban white kid from Torrance, adopting gangster-style poses with high school friend and fellow rap-music aficionado Gary Johnson. Another showed Moore pointing a fake gun at Johnson. Pham also had a few selections of rap lyrics Moore had penned in a high school notebook—lyrics she used to convince a jury that he was guilty of armed robbery.

Late in the trial, Pham put Johnson, who had been called as a character witness for the defense, on the stand. He took his place next to Orange County Superior Court Judge Daniel J. Didier.

"Rap groups," Pham said. "Okay. Are you into rap music?"

A: Yes I am.

Q: And do you know if the defendant is into rap music?

A: Yes, he is.

Q: Has the defendant ever written any lyrics to rap music?

A: Yes, he has.

Q: Do those lyrics include using guns, robbing people, etc.?

A: Uh-huh, yes.

Q: I have nothing further.

Shortly after, during closing arguments, Pham brought up Moore's in-terest in rap music once again. "Mr. Moore admitted he knew 187 meant murder and 211 meant robbery and used those two code numbers in his rap lyrics," Pham told the jury. "Mr. Moore is a man who likes to make his life reflect reality. He likes rap music because it reflects real life because real life is full of crimes. Well, on Aug. 29, 1998, and Nov. 24, 1998, that's exactly what he did. He wanted to make his life real, and he committed those two robberies."

The jury agreed. On Nov. 4, Moore was convicted on two counts of armed robbery and sentenced to 12 years in state prison. Now 21, Moore is an inmate at Wasco State Prison near Bakersfield. His parole date is Jan. 13, 2010.

While Moore's connection to the crime remains a matter of dispute—Moore is challenging his conviction in an upcoming appeal—the only thing clear about the Aug. 29 robbery of the Video Stage store in Fullerton is that two men did the crime: a white guy and a black guy who walked into the store together. Witnesses told police the white man appeared to be in his 20s, weighed at least 250 pounds, and was wearing a blue polo T-shirt and Levi's denim shorts. Both men were wearing black baseball caps and carrying .45 automatic handguns. They pointed their weapons at the store clerk and demanded money. They got $190 in cash and a purloined copy of the gangster/hip-hop movie Caught Up—a VHS video valued at $10—ran outside, and jumped into what witnesses described as a blue Geo Prism.

Evidence for the prosecution: Moore's gun fetish

Moore showed up on police radar three months later. On Nov. 24, the Orange Police Department arrested Moore while he was driving his blue Geo Prism from a holdup outside a local bank. According to the police report, Moore never denied that he was the getaway driver. He expressed what appeared to be genuine concern that he had unknowingly taken part in a crime and wanted to know if the holdup victim was okay. Moore told officers his involvement had stemmed from an honest mistake.

Moore said he agreed to drive from Torrance to pick up his friend Charles Gilbert in Bellflower. Gilbert told Moore he and another friend, Dron Botts, needed a lift to his aunt's house in Orange. Gilbert and Moore shared a love of rap music; Moore had never met Botts. About halfway to the aunt's house, Gilbert suddenly asked Moore to pull into a parking lot next to a Washington Mutual Bank. Police say Botts and Gilbert robbed Brandon Nakamura at gunpoint while he was using the bank's ATM machine.

Moore says he stayed in the car. A minute later, Gilbert returned. That's when Moore says he realized something was wrong: Botts was running and carrying a handgun. Botts jumped into the car and told Moore to hit the gas. But Moore did not speed away. He later told police he was terrified when he saw Botts' handgun; he drove so slowly that Nakamura was able to follow Moore's car for several blocks while he dialed 911 on his cell phone. When a police car took up the chase, an Orange police report says, Moore yielded almost immediately. He pulled over to the side of the road before suddenly speeding away again. Moore later claimed he tried to pull over but Botts—still armed and sitting next to Moore—had ordered him to drive on. As the Prism raced off, police saw a handgun fly out the front passenger window. Moore drove straight into a dead end. The chase was over almost as soon as it began.

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