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.

Aug 8, 2001 at 4:00 am
Lavell Webb sits in front of a television at the Boonville Correctional Facility, watching a videotape, surrounded by a few prison officials, a couple of visitors and an armed guard. He is the center of attention as the lawmen form a half-circle around him, their eyes alternately watching the television and stealing glances at Webb's reaction to what he's viewing. He shifts in his chair every so often, reclining, legs stretched one moment, leaning into the TV the next. The room is large and drab, crammed with a dozen chess-and-checkerboard tables and chairs, a few vending machines and a metal detector at the door.

The video shows an interview with St. Louis rap group the St. Lunatics from '98, when Webb, a.k.a. City Spud, was one of them in person, not just in spirit, back before there was any need for the free Lunatics -- Ali, Kyjuan, Murphy Lee and, of course, Nelly -- to name their debut full-length CD Free City in honor of their incarcerated brother. Back when his jumpsuit was flashy orange camouflage, not prison gray; back when he was making music and rhyming about making money, not paying the price for doing what others brag about in their rhymes.

The video interview was three years ago, and the St. Lunatics were nobodies. They didn't have a hit record. Nelly wasn't rap's It boy. There were no screaming teens, no gold Humvees, not even a record contract. They weren't making money, at least not much. All they had was a regional hit, "Gimme What You Got." And City Spud was free.

All five in the video are dressed in colorful fatigues, playing stars and getting the word out about all things Lou. Ali, Kyjuan and Murphy Lee sit on stools in the back; in front, Nelly and City Spud flank the interviewer. Spud's seated in the worst possible spot. The interviewer's angled away from him, so Spud's left out of the conversation, staring at the man's back. Spud's a quiet guy in the first place, and despite the presence of his friends, he looks all alone on that stage. He attempts to jump in a few times, but without a mic his utterances are ignored. Boonville Prison officials want to play the tape over the prison's closed-circuit television system; everyone at Boonville knows who City Spud is, and they seem to like him. Prison officials want to showcase his achievements. They seem proud of him.

Ever unassuming and a bit uncomfortable with the attention he's getting in this room, Spud wavers, mumbles, unsure whether he wants his fellow inmates to see it. He doesn't really shine on the video; he just sits to the side. When the group performs one of their songs later in the show, he seems confident and assured. But it doesn't matter who he is in here. He could be the King of England and it wouldn't change the reality: He's not leaving anytime soon.

He decides against airing the St. Lunatics interview.

"Right now, I'm not Spud," he says later. "Coming here made me -- I had to go back to being Lavell. Spud's supposed to be out on tour with Destiny's Child right now. When I got here, I just had to put that away for the time being. Not away to the point where I'm not writing and I just don't want to do music. But I have to deal with this here. I do get emotional sometimes. Videos popping up, and I can just see myself on the video, but missing family and friends and just missing freedom, period."

Lavell Webb's in a messed-up situation; he's a founding member of the St. Lunatics, whose debut went platinum last month, but he's not up onstage with them. He's not in Nelly's "Ride Wit Me" video, though he's on the recording -- that's him rhyming "Now that I'm a fly guy, and I fly high/Niggaz wanna know why, why I fly by." He created the music for four songs on Nelly's multiplatinum Country Grammar album, along with one on Free City, and is receiving producer's royalties for them. But those tracks were laid before he landed in the clink. He was sent here in November 1999; Nelly and the Lunatics hit the national charts six months later. And all City Spud can do is track the Billboard charts that the mother of fellow Lunatic producer Jason (J.E.) Epperson sends him every week. Fan mail trickles in. His family visits him, though Nelly and the other St. Lunatics don't. His royalty checks are fattening his bank account, but he can't touch it and can't spend it on anything anyway.

Sitting at the chessboard table later, out of earshot of the prison officials who are milling around, City Spud gets reflective. "I'm in this situation because I made a wrong decision," he says, "not because I was listening to rap or because I'm a rapper and I'm trying to be real to the world or whatever. But because I'm human. I made a mistake. I basically got caught up with the wrong person at the wrong time doing the wrong thing. It wasn't no rap. It was because I ain't perfect."ike countless county kids both white and black, Lavell Webb started selling some pot, a reasonably low-risk proposition in the world of get-cash-quick schemes. It was the spring of '99, and he had quit his job at a North County McDonald's -- what self-respecting rap star would want to be caught in McDonald's fatigues? -- and needed some sort of income. On tax day '99, in Breckenridge Hills, he was to sell $1,500 worth of marijuana. It was supposed to be easy; the customer was to beep Spud as a signal that he was off work and ready to hook up. No big deal. Spud was carless, though, and the guy he solicited to drive him came up with a devious scheme: Turn a nice little profit into a virtual windfall by keeping the dope and snatching the dough. That was supposed to be easy, too. The partner would do the dirty work and keep a grand; Spud would stay in the car, get $500 and keep the pot.

With his partner driving -- someone Spud says he knew to be bad news, so never hung with -- the two cruised to the customer's neighborhood and Spud pointed out his house and car. Then the two zipped to a 7-Eleven around the corner, where Spud called the buyer and told him to swing by Spud's to make the transaction. They stopped in a parking lot a block away. The partner put on a mask and grabbed his gun. Spud stayed at the car. His partner, according to City Spud's written statement to the police, "got out of the car and ran and hid by [the victim's] house. I'm sitting in the car thinking why am I getting myself into some crazy bullshit like this for $500. Thinking of that I got out of the car nervously to see what was going on. First I ran the opposite way of [the victim's] house thinking of just leaving. But for some strange reason I ran back. Got back to the car started to get back in but I didn't. I walk over toward [the victim's] house to see if anything was going on and did not see anything. Walked back to the car got in 2 minutes later I heard gun shots fired. Sitting there panicked [sic] like I looked back and seen [the partner] running back to the car. When he got in he said man he didn't give up shit but this $30.00 and said man I had to pop him. I looked at him and said man you tripping."

The victim was shot five times in the back but, miraculously, lived. He suffered severe internal injuries that will stay with him for the rest of his life. He lost the use of his left hand. But he lived, and when he came to, he told police the gunman seemed to know that he had $1,500 in his pockets. Only one other person knew that bit of information, and that was Lavell Webb, a.k.a. City Spud.

The police started looking for him and stopped by the home of his grandmother Regina and her husband, John, who helped raise Lavell. They didn't want their last name mentioned. "When I found out that they were looking for him," says John, "I put the word out, 'Lavell, you go down there now, for two reasons.' I know Lavell didn't know anything about the law. And when the police told me that they were looking for him for a shooting, I said, 'Lavell is subject to get scared, take off running and these trigger-happy cops -- a young black man fleeing -- were going to kill him.'"

Adds grandmother Regina: "Lavell's thinking is, 'I'm going to tell the truth about this situation, because if I tell the truth, then everything's going to be all right.'"

"And that's the result of his Christian background," says John. "Tell the truth."

So Nelly drove City Spud to the police station, and Spud owned up. He told them that he made the phone call that set up the victim. That he didn't pull the trigger. That he didn't think there would be any violence. That he stayed in the car. And he told the truth without an attorney present. Why should you need an attorney present to tell the truth?

Lavell Webb has almond eyes and a complexion that closely resembles his friend Nelly's. Because of this striking resemblance, when the two hung out, they were often mistaken for brothers, which never bothered them. It happened so often that they stopped correcting the mistake. Ask anyone Webb's defining characteristic, and they'll all say that unlike Nelly, Lavell is low-key.

"He's real quiet," says St. Lunatic member Ali. "We called him City Spud for the fact that he was -- it was like calling a fat person Tiny. He was from the county. He was always from the county, real passive, real nice, real neat, just a really cool guy. He was so county that we called him City."

"He'd sit over on the side of the room," adds fellow Lunatic Murphy Lee, "quiet and on his own, and then come over and say, 'Hey, yo, I got this song.' He'd wrote a song in two hours, a whole song, verses and all, and know how the beat should go. It was crazy. He's just the music man."

Nelly's Country Grammar and the St. Lunatics' Free City both have a defining sound, one that's simultaneously smooth enough to appeal to the ladies and youngsters but hard enough, and with enough bounce, to attract hardcore hip-hoppers; the sound has built a bridge between rap and R&B. The beats and melodies on Grammar were created by Jason (J.E.) Epperson and City Spud.

"Beat-wise, me and J.E. was just constantly in the studio," says City Spud. "We was just making beats after beats all day. We just put them on tape, give them to the rest of the group, and they pick whatever they like. And if it sounded hot -- something they could just ride -- it'd come back to us. And if it's hot, then we do it. As long as the beat's just banging, with a lot of bass. Just well-put-together music. It wasn't sloppy and scattered. I like the smoothness to a lot of beats, man -- I like the chords. I really like doing R&B music, so that's why my rap music was kinda more R&B-ish. I think a lot of my music was meant for it -- R&B hooks for them."

"I'm just a music person, period," he continues. "I grew up in a church -- Granny making me go to church. You know how little kids hate going to church? So I had to find something to do. I started playing the drums for the choir, and it just took off from there. I was in, and then I got into band in elementary school and middle-school band, high-school band, percussion, drums."

"Lavell has always been a quiet, very creative and very musically inclined person," says step-grandfather John. "When he came here, I made him the promise that whatever he wanted to be -- besides a bum -- we would back him. He decided that he wanted to be a drummer, so we bought him drums. And he played the drums in the church a long time. Then he decided that he wanted to play the piano, so rather than buy him a whole new piano and then find out that he didn't want to play it, we bought him a keyboard. And he took that keyboard and worked miracles with it."

"It was a constant thing," adds Regina. "He stuck with it. He could do that for days and days on end."

In Boonville, City Spud doesn't do much of anything for days and days on end. He plays a lot of chess and checkers and he writes. Since "Ride Wit Me" hit, he started getting more mail in a week than he had in all the time he'd spent here prior. Most of the fans show him love, tell him to keep his head up and to keep thinking about the music, which they adore.

Most of the inmates know that he's a St. Lunatic, but it's not much of an issue here. When Country Grammar exploded, and when "Ride Wit Me," which is officially attributed to "Nelly featuring City Spud," cracked the Top 5 on the Billboard singles charts, his name became more recognizable inside. But the inmates leave him alone. "There's not a difference in the way they treat me," he says. "More people are saying 'What's up, City?' now. It's cool. But it wasn't like they was treating me a certain way but then when it came out and blew up like it blew -- it wasn't like, 'Ah, we gotta treat 'em this way now.' Not with the people that I'm cool with anyway.

"I feel I'm an inspiration to some, in the sense that I'm still part of the group that broke the ice for St. Louis. A lot of the guys that are up here that got a lot of great talent are on their way home. I talk to them, let them know this-and-that. We share ideas. I just tell them what I know and how things go, because a lot of the guys just know this-and-that. But they don't know the things behind this-and-that."

As with a lot of the other inmates, a single misjudgment cost him dearly. But it also divided him from a blast of fame. Nelly and the St. Lunatics are everywhere: in the magazines, causing a ruckus in airplanes, hopping from party to party, touring with Destiny's Child, playing, making money and spending it, fucking, smoking -- doing it right -- experiencing in real life all the toys and games that as wannabes they'd long pined for. The St. Lunatics have arrived, and musicians only arrive once and shine for so long; regardless of when City Spud gets out, he will have missed the salad days of the St. Lunatics, a group that he helped form in 1992. That said, Spud will be in a better position than everyone else here when he's released: The royalty checks are rolling right in and gathering interest; by the time he's released, he'll likely realize that a gold Humvee isn't the smartest way to spend $100,000.

None of the Lunatics have visited him in the nearly two years he's been at Boonville. Both his mother and his grandparents say he has been angry at the Lunatics for not visiting him. Asked whether he wants them to, he pauses. "I really don't -- I wouldn't mind, but I'm not like, 'Come see me man -- I want to see you.' Because they're busy. They're rarely in St. Louis anyway. So if they're here, they're here for a day or two, and then they're right back out."

Even if they made the time to visit Spud, Nelly and the St. Lunatics would be discreet about it. They're walking a line right now. With fame comes unforgiving scrutiny; the audience gravitating to the Lunatics consists equally of pop and hip-hop fans, some of them teens, and parents pay close attention to the music their impressionable children choose to consume. Were they more of a thug group designed to appeal to the rough-and-tumble hip-hop crowd, the Lunatics could wear as a badge of honor the fact that one of their members is locked up. They'd be considered more "real" and more believable when rhyming about the thug life. But although the Lunatics' music contains a fair amount of cussing and smoking and lovemaking, they're not thugs and aren't interested in that angle. So they're attracting listeners who are not enamored of felonious behavior. A little partying, Lunatics-style, is OK. But a member of the group involved in a shooting crime could change the perception of the Lunatics. This sensitivity was evident in every interview with St. Lunatics members: A publicist was always on the phone line with them, ready to nix any discussion of the specifics of Spud's crime. Though the publicist insisted that she was simply fending off any information that might be used against him in appeal, it was clear that their record label would prefer this incident to remain as hush-hush as possible. Nelly isn't commenting on his friend's situation.

Lunatics manager Tony Davis says the group hasn't visited Spud to protect his safety: Boonville officials suggested it might not be a good idea. When inmates "start seeing the cars and jewelry," he says, "when people really start seeing it, that's when the jealousy comes out. Even though we sold 2 or 3 million albums before we started purchasing cars and jewelry, it's just like -- when they were just seeing them on TV and hearing about it, it was all good. But when you start seeing them roll around the streets in Benzes and Hummers and all the jewelry, that's when people started spreading rumors. And that's what the jail was saying. If people can start seeing his picture, it might just click in their head: This is really who that is."

Davis acknowledges, though, that talk of City Spud's situation is kept to a minimum: "With Nelly's success, we always tried to avoid the question or stay away from it."

So they shout to him in other, more discreet ways. They named their album for him. They call to him on the record. They talk to him on the phone. They're showing him love; it's just not face-to-face. Plus, Spud's a quiet, humble guy. Says Ali: "You know how he is. He's always like, 'I'm cool.' But we're like, 'Spud, what you need? You got money in your account, we got money, what you need?' Whatever, whatever. [City says,] 'Nah, I'm happy. Just keep doing it.'

"The whole fact of like using Free City like that," continues Ali, "was to just scream his name out for him, like, 'Yo, we know how he feels because we all cried -- we went all this way together and then boom. We ain't going to let you die at all. We got you and we trying to get you out of there, and we gonna just shout your name.'"

Their devotion isn't surprising. The St. Lunatics, all out of high school and working day jobs, formed in 1993. Consisting of Nelly, Ali, Kyjuan, Murphy Lee and City Spud, the five decided to make a go of it in their spare time while they were working elsewhere: A couple were doing the college thing, others were making money in the service industry. In the rap world of the early '90s, St. Louis was nowheresville. The East Coast's reign was on the wane -- Public Enemy, Boogie Down Productions and Big Daddy Kane were played out -- and the West Coast gangsta rap of NWA and their offshoots (Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Eazy-E) and Snoop Doggy Dog were selling like crazy. The rap scene seemed to leap from the left coast to the right coast in a single bound, completely hopping over the Midwest talent as it made its way to LA. If you were making hip-hop in the Lou in the mid-'90s you may as well have been in Anchorage; no one from the industry was searching St. Louis, or any other city in the middle of America, for the next big thing. No one heard a sound.

The St. Lunatics matured inside this abyss. They approached the business with discipline and determination. Temptation was out there -- how do you pay the bills as a North Side teenager? Work in fast food? Become a professional athlete? Play the drug game? At least one member of the crew has admitted in song to dabbling with the latter: "I opened up shop at 13," rhymes Nelly on Country Grammar as he lists a string of substances available at his store. But the short-term gain of the drug trade doesn't fly for long if you've got half a brain. The Lunatics, says Ali, decided that they'd better keep straight if they wanted to win in the music industry. "That was something that we talked about. We cleared that up from day one when we started the Lunatics in '93. We sat down like a firm or some type of corporation at a young age and was like, 'Yo, we gonna start a group, we gonna be focused, we gonna do it like this.' It was all crazy at the beginning how we used to do it: If you're late, you do pushups and all kind of stuff. We're not doing this because we're not risking going to jail, because if we go to jail, it's like this-and-that. That was a firm thing with us."

Around the same time, City Spud was transferring his expertise on the drums to learning beat production in the studio. While the others were honing their rhyme skills, Spud and J.E. were working the beats. Spud "was mostly getting into production first," says Murphy Lee, "so rapping wasn't it. It was like, 'I can produce.' It was easy for him to write a rap, so easy to write a whole song, a whole album as well as that. He was trying to expand his stuff, so he was on the production big. Spud was in the studio -- studio man -- studio and Spud, studio and Spud."

"When we first started out back in the day," adds Ali, "getting different equipment here and there, Spud was just studying, studying, studying to where we look up and, OK, he got that one. Move on to the next one."

You know the type: the quiet guy who talks little, but put him in front of a musical instrument and magical, fluent language flows out effortlessly. That's the sound of a Spud track: smooth, melodic, dense and rolling with a deep thunder-beat, perfectly suited for both a late-night cruise and a sweaty club.

The group's break arrived in '97 when DJ Kut started playing the St. Lunatics single "Gimme What You Got" on radio station The Beat; suddenly, the sound of this city was airing next to Biggie, Tupac and the Wu-Tang Clan, and the cut didn't sound out of place; it didn't sound local, didn't sound minor league, didn't sound like a North County basement track. "Everybody in the city had a feeling," says Ali. "Everybody was like, 'Yo, you know they from St. Louis? That's from St. Louis!' It was one of the best songs on the radio at the time. 'Whoa, who they? Where they from? They from St. Louis!' Everybody was showing us love: 'Ain't you one of the Lunatics?' It was crazy, and Spud was like a big, big, big attraction." Why? "The girls," he says with a laugh. "Him and Nelly had like a battle -- it was friendly, it wasn't personal -- but as far as the girls, the girls in the audience were like, 'Nelly, yeah! Spud, yeah!' They just had it going like that."

Soon enough the word started spreading to the labels. With the success in Atlanta of the Organized Noise camp and in New Orleans of the Cash Money and No Limit camps, the gaze of the industry was starting to focus on the No Coast, and the major-label scouts were looking for that Midwest flavor.

The St. Lunatics started to make their mark after a visit to Atlanta, where they passed out some tapes of their music, one of which ended up in the hands of someone with influence. The buzz was starting in the early part of 1999. A jittery sort of excitement started to consume the city; finally, somebody was showing them how it's done St. Louis-style.

But the members of the group were still working their day jobs. The money was just up the way, so close you could see it, but it hadn't arrived yet. They had a tiny hit on a radio station in a city not known as a hip-hop hotspot. It wasn't much, but it was something, just enough of a taste to send the mind reeling at the possibilities. Just enough to make a man's head get a little fuzzy, to start thinking down the line at the potential. Just enough to assess the current situation and find it lacking.

Nelly was working at the post office. Ali was cutting hair at a barbershop. Murphy Lee was at Office Max. Kyjuan was out at Lambert. And Spud was at McDonald's. "That's all you knew him from," says Murphy. "Anytime we was at the park, anytime we was around, he had on a McDonald's tie with the button-up shirt. That's what you knew Spud from, flat-out: McDonald's. All his life that's what he'd been -- that and rapping."

McDonald's or rap star? Friday night he's onstage and the girls are gazing. Saturday night the same girls are at the counter asking him to Super Size it for them. What self-respecting rap star's gonna accept that? Spud made a play, and the play set the stage. "I had quit McDonald's, it had been like three or four years, and it was like, doing this rap, I think my ego was getting in the way. I'm thinking, 'All right, we got this buzz on this song. We're this hot rap group in St. Louis, and you come in McDonald's, you can find one of the rappers -- he's working there.' No. You couldn't catch me there. I needed -- I was trying to get the fast money then. We're discussing deals with this company and that company, it's looking good because we're having meetings with major labels, but every time you turn around it's like, no, no, no. So I'm steady, I'm like, no, this ain't working. I'm trying to get money right now to tide me over just in case somebody does pop up. And both of them popped up at the same time. My situation and the yes with the record company."

"We were just about to start to really see something, production money-wise, you know?" says Lunatics road manager and longtime friend Yella. "We were right there. We were feeling good, you know what I'm saying? And then for this to happen, we were like, 'What? What is going on?' It was right at the edge. We were right there."

Boom. The word appears in conversations with Spud, his family and the Lunatics, as if "the incident" were a blind-side punch, something that happened to City Spud rather than Spud making a conscious decision to get involved in a double-cross. It was as though he'd been hit by a car or struck by lightning.

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.'"

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.

Spud's family was blindsided by such a lengthy sentence for a first-time offender. The morning of the sentencing, says Donna Webb, Littleton came into the courtroom and told them that "he had done the best he could and that Lavell was going to be put in. Well, that was devastating, but, still, he also did say that he probably wouldn't do more than 18 months. An hour or so later we go into the courtroom and the judge sentences him to three years on the ACA charge and 10 years on the robbery charge, and then makes a statement that says, 'Are you aware of the 85 percent rule?' And the answer is no, never knew that." The family's outrage is now directed at Littleton. They say he left them in the dark about the threat of an extended stay in jail.

Webb says that Littleton never informed them that probation was not possible on a charge of armed criminal action and that he never attempted to negotiate a plea bargain.

Littleton denies that he misadvised the family. "I believe I sent a letter to him explaining the range of punishment and what could happen in the case," he says. "But I thought that it was a travesty. Certainly what happened in the case was very serious, the charges were serious, but I thought it was a travesty with respect to the sentence he received. Him being a first offender, first felony offense, it was serious, but it was within the court's discretion, and the court giving him the minimum on the robbery first. I don't know. When you're in the business, you see tough cases. I thought he was a good kid." When Spud's family appealed the sentence, saying Littleton provided inadequate counsel, the appellate court denied the motion.

Spud's family has now retained Scott Rosenblum as their lawyer. "I'm reviewing all his options," he says, "and certainly, at this stage in the appellate process, it's an uphill battle."

What frustrates Spud's family is not only the lengthy sentence he received but also the fact that the man who did the shooting is walking free. "I am not by any means saying that Lavell did not have a part," says Donna Webb, "because, again, I recognize the fact that had you not done something, or had you done something, this would be different. Do you get away scot-free? No, you can't. We've had that conversation. But do you pay the total price for something that someone else did?"

"So often our young men, our youth," adds grandmother Regina, "are not really given the benefit of the doubt when it comes to sentencing. What they saw was, a young black boy shot a white boy. And my understanding is that he did not do the shooting and they know who did the shooting -- so if you know that this young man has a record, and he knows the ropes, and he did the shooting, why does Lavell have to pay the full price? I don't know the law, and I was so upset over this situation because I knew Lavell is not a violent person.

"Like Lavell says, 'I'm not a criminal, Granny, I'm not a criminal.' He says, 'I know I'm in here, and I know I did wrong, but I'm not a criminal.'"