A notorious crack kingpin with ties to the hip-hop industry was convicted Thursday in a federal death penalty case of paying $50,000 to have two rivals gunned down in 2001.
A jury deliberated five days before finding Kenneth “Supreme” McGriff guilty of murder conspiracy and drug dealing. McGriff, who was acquitted on lesser drugs and weapons charges, looked back and smiled at his supporters when the verdict was issued.
In the 1980s, McGriff founded the Supreme Team, a notoriously lucrative and ruthless drug crew that became legendary on the same Queens streets that later produced rap stars like Ja Rule and 50 Cent.
The defense claimed that after an earlier prison sentence for drugs, McGriff went straight in the late 1990s and pursued his dream of producing movies and music by teaming with Irv “Gotti” Lorenzo, a neighborhood friend who headed the successful Murder Inc. record label.
Prosecutors alleged McGriff, 46, instead resumed his drug dealing operations in New York and Baltimore, and used Murder Inc. to launder more than $1 million in proceeds. When a little-known rapper named E-Money Bags shot and killed one of McGriff’s friends in a 1999 dispute, the defendant paid a hit team to kill the rapper and a second man who McGriff feared might retaliate.
“That man sitting in the courtroom is one of the most dangerous, feared, ruthless gangsters in all of Queens,” prosecutor Carolyn Pokorney said during closing arguments. “And when Supreme gets in a fight with somebody ... he doesn’t go to the cops. He doesn’t hire a lawyer. He hires a hit team to assassinate them, to blow them away, so that their moms can barely recognize them when they go down to the morgue.”
The defense told jurors that both victims were known thugs who were armed when killed. It also argued that the government had built its case on the false testimony of admitted criminals hoping to see their prison time reduced.
The same jury will return next Tuesday to deliberate the death penalty against McGriff. At the least, McGriff would face a sentence of life in prison without parole.
U.S. District Judge Frederic Block surprised prosecutors last week by asking them to contact Justice officials and ask them to reconsider their decision to seek a death sentence for McGriff, saying a penalty phase would be an “absurd” waste of time and money. The prosecutors told him this week that the officials not changed their minds.
Defense lawyer David Ruhnke said that though he was disappointed with the verdict, “We’re pretty confident this jury will spare his life.”
The mother of one of the victims, Karen Cameron, told reporters outside court that she opposed a death sentence for McGriff. “Death is not the answer,” she said.
McGriff was originally indicted along with Lorenzo and Lorenzo’s brother Chris, a Murder Inc. executive. After being granted a separate trial, the brothers were acquitted in 2005 of money-laundering charges.
McGriff succeeded in making a straight-to-video film, “Crime Partners 2000,” that featured Ja Rule, Snoop Dogg and Ice-T. The movie, about two hit men, was released in 2001.
Made $200,000 a day at peak
At the Supreme Team’s peak, McGriff and his nephew, Gerald “Prince” Miller, employed scores of crack dealers in and around a Queens housing project and took in $200,000 a day, authorities said.
The team used rooftop sentinels with two-way radios to thwart police. It inflicted violence against rivals and traitors, resulting in at least eight murders in 1987 alone, authorities said.
McGriff’s was among three death penalty trials occurring simultaneously at the same federal courthouse.
Last month, a jury spared the life of a gang member convicted of murder. Earlier this week, a jury sentenced to death the killer of two undercover police detectives — the first federal defendant sentenced to death in New York City since 1954.