NEW YORK – A remorseless drug lord with ties to hip-hop and Hollywood was spared the death penalty Friday by a Brooklyn jury that instead sentenced him to life in prison without parole for orchestrating a pair of cold-blooded murders.
The jury, which last week convicted Kenneth "Supreme" McGriff of murder for hire, deliberated just over 2 1/2 hours on the sentence.
The forewoman said the panel was split on the death penalty, leading to the sentence of life without parole.
McGriff, 46, who had listened calmly as federal prosecutors called for his death, showed no reaction as the jury announced he would not receive a lethal injection.
McGriff was the founder of the Supreme Crew, a brutal drug gang that operated during the 1980s on the same Queens streets where platinum rappers 50 Cent and Ja Rule emerged years later. At its peak, the Supreme Team's network of dealers was making $200,000 a day, authorities said.
After McGriff did jail time on a drug conviction, he was released in 1997 and aligned himself with neighborhood friend and music mogul Irv "Gotti" Lorenzo.
Defense attorneys claimed McGriff's alliance was part of his plan to create movies and music. The one-time street thugs produced one film: "Crime Partners 2000," a straight to video affair that featured Ja Rule, Snoop Dogg and Ice-T.
But prosecutors insisted McGriff returned to the drug business, operating in New York City and Baltimore. Lorenzo and his brother, Chris, were indicted with McGriff but acquitted at a separate trial on charges of using their label Murder Inc. to launder $1 million in drug money.
McGriff was convicted Feb. 1 of murder for hire and drug dealing. The 2001 slayings, which cost McGriff $50,000, involved an obscure rapper named Eric "E-Money Bags" Smith and Troy Singleton; Smith was killed for his fatal 1999 shooting of a McGriff associate, while Singleton was targeted because McGriff felt he might retaliate on Smith's behalf.
After Smith's slaying in a hail of gunfire, McGriff text messaged a friend: "You missed the party."
Troy Singleton Jr., now 14, sobbed on the witness stand during the penalty phase as he described growing up without his father. Smith left behind eight children, including one born a month after his death.
McGriff sat impassively during Singleton's testimony. The youth was one of three witnesses called by prosecutors in the death penalty phase of the case.
Both the trial judge and Smith's mother said they felt the death penalty was inappropriate for McGriff.
"There's no chance in the world there would be a death penalty verdict in this case," U.S. District Court Judge Frederic Bloch told prosecutors. Karen Cameron, although she testified for the prosecution in the penalty phase, agreed with Bloch.
"Death is not the answer," she said of her son's death.
The jury's decision followed another panel's Jan. 30 vote to execute the killer of two undercover police detectives -- the first federal defendant sentenced to death in New York City since 1954. Both cases were heard in the same federal courthouse.