LOS ANGELES (AP) — A judge ordered Stevie Wonder's cousin to stand trial on an extortion charge after hearing testimony that the man and his girlfriend attempted to sell a film ranting against the singer's treatment of his family for millions of dollars.
Superior Court Judge Ray Jurado ruled Thursday that prosecutors had presented enough evidence for a jury to decide whether Alpha L. Walker and his girlfriend Tamara E. Diaz extorted Wonder by threatening to sell it to various media outlets if they weren't paid by the Grammy-winning musician.
The pair has been jailed since May 2, when they were arrested during a sting organized by Wonder's attorney and Los Angeles police. The pair was given a $10,000 down payment on a $500,000 agreement to hand over the film footage and keep its contents confidential.
Attorneys for Walker, who is Wonder's cousin, and Tamara argued that prosecutors hadn't presented enough evidence to support the case. Walker's attorney, Ian Wallach, said his client had made a movie about his own life, was marketing it for sale and his actions were protected by the First Amendment.
A police detective described the film as an 80-minute rant against Wonder. Portions of it were filmed in the former home of the singer's late mother, which is now dilapidated, and it also shows Wonder's son, who the musician is protective of. Walker, 38, accused the musician of being "a slumlord" and made derogatory comments about the singer's mother, two witnesses said.
Walker and Diaz have pleaded not guilty and Wallach has said his client is innocent.
Wonder did not testify. Throughout the hearing, he was referred to by his real name, Stevland Morris.
Many of the accusations were not described in great detail in court Thursday, but a detective testified that Wonder denied them in an interview.
"It was a continuous rant about the injustices that had been done to him — in his opinion — by Mr. Morris and that Mr. Morris was the cause of him having all of these issues in his life," Los Angeles Police Detective Tracey Benjamin testified.
Benjamin, who interviewed Wonder for the case, said the singer was hurt by Walker's accusations and said they were untrue. She said Wonder stated that paying his cousin money would be the only way to keep it from being sold to a news outlet and embarrassing him and his family.
"He explained that when something like this is released to the media, it is presumed to be true," Benjamin said.
Wonder's attorney William Briggs II said he watched much of the film but stopped when it showed footage of Wonder's son, who has mental issues that were not described in court. He said Walker initially told him he wanted $5 million for the footage, but later agreed to a $500,000 payment.
Briggs said Walker also made claims that Wonder had "possibly engaged in an incestuous relationship."
Walker repeatedly told Briggs that he wasn't intending to extort Wonder and asked for the lawyer's assurances that he wasn't committing a crime. The attorney said a confidentiality agreement he drafted included language that the pair should seek legal advice.
With more than two dozen officers monitoring the hamburger restaurant where the group held their final meeting, Walker and Diaz signed their initials on the agreement and were quickly arrested.
Wallach and Diaz's attorney, Alex Sario questioned whether Briggs, who recorded his conversations with the defendants, had worked with police to craft a confidentiality agreement that would prove extortion. Briggs said several of the words included in the document, including "fear," ''embarrassing" and "private" came directly from Wonder, but that he also included language given to jurors deciding extortion cases.
Briggs said he wanted to see if Walker and Diaz, who was arrested with a list of things she hoped to do with the money they received, would carry out their plan.
If they did, he said, I wanted them to admit the damage they were doing."
Walker and Diaz, both 38, return to court on July 26 for an arraignment hearing.
Anthony McCartney can be reached at http://twitter.com/mccartneyAP