Bad Rap

Nelly and the St. Lunatics are riding high, but their brother City Spud isn't riding with them. "I'm human. I made a mistake," he says from prison.

That view is understandable -- he'd never been in trouble with the law. No misdemeanors. No run-ins. No midnight knocks on the door. Just a quiet kid working on the music, working at McDonald's and having some fun. Joining up with a few friends and sowing the seeds of a dream, one that was as honest and serious as it was funky.

But on April 15, 1999, Spud was riding with the wrong person. Making money. That wrong person was somebody with a record, a reputation and a ride, and Spud needed a ride. When the beep came from the buyer, the driver suggested that they jack him. "I was thinking no," says Spud in his statement, "but I said whatever."

It was a crucial "whatever" from someone who's always been laidback, says his mother, Donna Webb. "Lavell has always been a very easygoing, nonchalant, laidback person. So, knowing him the way I do, I really believe that what happened that night was that his level of indifference took over, not even beginning to think in his wildest dreams that that would have happened -- not saying yes, not saying no, but 'whatever.'"

The St. Lunatics minus City Spud: Nelly, Murphy Lee, Ali, Kyjuan, along with hype-man Slo-Down. Naming Free City in honor of City Spud, says Ali, "was to just scream his name out for him. We ain't going to let you die at all. We got you and we trying to get you out of there."
Jennifer Silverberg
The St. Lunatics minus City Spud: Nelly, Murphy Lee, Ali, Kyjuan, along with hype-man Slo-Down. Naming Free City in honor of City Spud, says Ali, "was to just scream his name out for him. We ain't going to let you die at all. We got you and we trying to get you out of there."

Doug Sidel, the assistant St. Louis County prosecutor who handled the case, spins the incident differently. Spud was an active participant in a classic setup: Lure someone out into the night with a lot of cash in his pocket, then jack him. "Lavell shows [his partner] where the kid lives, shows him where the kid's car's parked, and he drops this co-defendant off and the guy hides behind some kind of a wall." No, Lavell Webb did not do any shooting or robbing. But without his knowledge, the gunman would never have been able to jack anyone. Instead of a "whatever," had Webb uttered a simple "no," the shooting wouldn't have happened.

After the shooting, Spud wrote in his statement to police, his partner drove him home: "I walked in the house and just sat in the dark thinking why and how did I get myself in some bullshit like this. The next day my friend said the police had been by his house. He gave me the card, then my brother said the police had been by my grandma's house. So I came here to talk."

Spud laid it all out for them. He told the truth. He hopped into a police car and even tried to help track down the gunman. And when, at the end of that night, he was finished telling them his story, when he thought he was on his way to at least partially absolving himself of responsibility, when it was time for them to let him go -- they didn't. They locked him up and charged him with one count of first-degree robbery, one count of first-degree assault and two counts of armed criminal action. Then he called a lawyer.

Had he walked in there the way that the gunman did a few days later, with a lawyer on one side and feigned ignorance on the other, there's a good chance Spud would be free now. Unlike Spud, the gunman hasn't been charged. He had been masked, so the victim couldn't identify him. Without the weapon, which the gunman apparently ditched, the only proof of his identity was City Spud's word, which wasn't good enough.

Had City Spud not made a statement implicating himself, not said a single word, the only evidence that could have connected him to the crime would have been circumstantial: the victim's word that the gunman knew he was carrying a large amount of cash. Spud wasn't on the crime scene, the victim himself acknowledges.

It's heartbreaking for his family and friends: Telling the truth got Spud locked up. Saying nothing, invoking the Fifth, could have kept him free. "As a mother, I struggle every day with how I raise my children, and that was to be honest, to tell the truth, the police is your friend," says Donna Webb. "And in those situations where those are the options, honesty is always the best policy. So even though I know in my mind as an adult of reasonable intelligence that this is not my fault, I believe that it is my fault. I struggle with the fact that I taught Lavell the right way, I taught him to be honest, I taught him to tell the truth, I taught him to trust the police. So in a situation like this, the fact that he did the right thing cost him a lot, and it's a major sacrifice to me."

Sidel acknowledges that Spud's honesty led him to prison. "Well, I guess that's a possibility," he says. "I mean, that's correct. But people implicate themselves in statements to the police every day. Statements are used against people all the time. So he's not the exception. It's not an exceptional situation."

On the advice of his lawyer, Levell Littleton, City Spud pleaded guilty to two of the four charges: first-degree robbery and armed criminal action. Because of his lack of a criminal record and the help he gave police in trying to track down the gunman, the family had hoped the system would be lenient with Spud. This was not the case. Given the state's minimum sentencing laws for felonies (which require criminals to serve 85 percent of their sentences), St. Louis County Circuit Judge James Hartenbach didn't have much power to be lenient. He gave City Spud the minimum sentence on both charges: 10 years for first-degree robbery and three years for armed criminal action. But Hartenbach could have suspended Webb's 10-year sentence, which would have sent him to prison for only three years. Instead, citing the grave injuries to the victim, Hartenbach ordered Webb to serve the sentences concurrently. With the 85 percent minimum requirement, Webb is in until at least 2008.

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