Local rapper Eric “Vicious” Johnson received a 16-year prison sentence Tuesday on an unusual conviction holding him responsible for the 2012 shooting death of a 43-year-old man, even though Johnson wasn’t the one who pulled the trigger.
Johnson was found guilty in March of “inciting a riot with death” for provoking retaliatory violence that led to Ray Ryan’s killing at the crime-plagued Pontalba Place apartment complex at Marigny Circle in Duson.
It was the first time the charge was prosecuted in Lafayette Parish and the second time in the state. The Louisiana statute dates back to the 1800s, to a time of lynch mobs and riots.
Johnson — who has never been accused of wielding a weapon the night of the May 18, 2012 incident — had gone to Ryan’s apartment building with a crew in tow to fight Ryan’s neighbor, who was part of a group that knocked Johnson unconscious the night before. Someone began firing during the melee, and a bullet pierced through Ryan’s body, killing him at the scene.
The shooter has never been officially identified or charged.
On Tuesday, Johnson, wearing a bright orange Lafayette Parish Correctional Center jumpsuit, with his hands cuffed and legs shackled, attempted to make his case for a light sentence before state District Judge David Smith.
Prosecutor Alan Haney pointed out that the maximum sentence for the charge is 21 years.
The rapper said he cooperated with police throughout the investigation, while noting the actual shooter remains unidentified by the courts.
“I’m deeply remorseful for the mother of Mr. Ryan,” Johnson said. “She still doesn’t know who is the shooter of her son.”
Johnson’s attorney, Harold Register, pleaded for a light sentence for his client “based on the unusual facts of this case … and the fact that we still don’t have the shooter.”
But he also accused the District Attorney’s Office of granting immunity to a man who may have been the shooter in exchange for his testimony against Johnson — an allegation Haney denied in court.
The man, 30-year-old Lee Hill, of Lafayette, was questioned and released in 2012, but the grand jury that indicted Johnson declined to indict Hill, according to testimony made during Johnson’s trial.
Johnson testified at trial that he knew Hill had a gun the night of the crime, and in his July 2012 statement to detectives with the Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office he accused Hill of firing “all over.”
But Johnson has admitted he left home that night with intent to seek vengeance against his assailant — a factor Judge Smith noted when making the decision about the rapper’s 16-year sentence.
According to the presentence investigation into Johnson’s history, Smith said, the rapper had been honorably discharged from the military and attended some college, and people who know Johnson testified he helped the community through his popularity as an area rap star.
Because presentence investigations contain sensitive health and personal information, they are not public record.
Johnson, who was born and reared in Houma but has lived in Lake Charles and Lafayette, has a 4-year-old child with his fiancée, Rebecca Seraille, Smith noted.
Seraille, 23, is awaiting trial on the same charge on which Johnson was convicted on allegations she was at Johnson’s side that night and equally at fault. A trial date has not been set.
But Smith also pointed out Johnson’s five felony convictions — none of which have been in Lafayette Parish — and two outstanding warrants in St. Landry and Acadia parishes.
Smith also noted “the victim died in this matter. He wasn’t just shot.”
Because Johnson’s punishment exceeds five years, he’ll serve his sentence in state prison. The Sheriff’s Office coordinates with the state Department of Corrections to determine which one.
Johnson has recorded more than a handful of albums since 1994, releasing radio-played singles like “I Ball Like Kobe” and “Meet Me at the Circle K” and landing a record deal with Port Arthur, Texas-based UGK Records. He was a frequent local performer, even after the incident that led to Ryan’s death — which first netted Johnson a terrorism charge that was dismissed when prosecutors charged him with inciting a riot.
In a March phone interview with Lake Charles radio station 107 JAMZ, Johnson spoke out after his conviction on what he deemed an unjust manhunt that distracted law enforcement from prosecuting Ryan’s actual killer.
“In the future, this is what they’re gonna use when they can’t nab the murderer,” Johnson said. “So don’t believe it’s just Vicious. They’re coming back, and they’re gonna use this unless somebody stops this. This is not right, man.”
In court Tuesday, Haney, the prosecutor, reiterated the same argument he made during Johnson’s two-day jury trial: If Johnson had “never left his house because he felt disrespected, Ray Ryan never would have been killed that night.”
Follow Lanie Lee Cook on Twitter, @lanieleecook, or contact her by phone at (337) 534-0825.