Cops on my tail, so I bail till I dodge them,

They finally pull me over and I laugh,

Remember Rodney King

And I blast his punk ass

Now I got a murder case ...

... What the {expletive} would you do?

Drop them or let them drop you?

I choose droppin' the cop!

-- from Tupac's "Soulja's Story"

The question of whether life imitates rap is headed for the courtroom -- and the charge is murder.

Six weeks after Time Warner Inc. and rapper Ice-T pulled the controversial "Cop Killer" song off the market, an unprecedented legal battle over another album released by a Time Warner subsidiary promises to reopen the bitter national debate over artistic expression, free speech and corporate responsibility.

Ronald Ray Howard, a 19-year-old Texan, is being held in the town of Edna, Tex., on a murder charge following the shooting death in April of 43-year-old state trooper Bill Davidson on a highway about 100 miles outside Houston.

Howard, according to most accounts, was driving a stolen car and listening to a tape of rapper Tupac Amaru Shakur's violence-laced "2pacalypse Now." The album, which has sold 400,000 copies, includes half a dozen songs that portray the killing of police officers -- songs that Howard's attorneys now claim influenced him to shoot the officer.

In addition to the murder charge, the officer's widow has filed a separate civil suit against the Bay Area-based Shakur and his Interscope Records label, a Time Warner subsidiary. The president of Interscope Records is Hollywood executive Frederick W. (Ted) Field, a leading financial donor to the Washington-based anti-censorship group, People for the American Way. The suit charges that the label and the rap artist were grossly negligent in manufacturing and distributing music that incites "imminent lawless action."

The lyrics of the album read like "pages out of a cop-killing manual," says a lawyer for widow Linda Davidson, who has been promised assistance by an organization headed by former White House aide Oliver North.

According to both the prosecution and the defense, Howard, an eighth-grade dropout on probation for car theft, was driving a stolen Chevy Blazer down Highway 59 near Victoria on April 11 when Davidson stopped the vehicle to issue a ticket for a missing headlight.

Moments after being pulled over, Howard shot Davidson in the neck with a 9mm pistol. A witness called police immediately. After a chase, Howard was arrested and reportedly confessed. Davidson died April 14 as a result of the gunshot wound.

The defendant has told authorities that he was listening to "2pacalypse Now" as he loaded his weapon, aimed it at the officer and pulled the trigger, sources close to the case said. Police recovered a copy of the "2pacalypse Now" cassette from the tape deck of the stolen Blazer.

(Howard, who has been held in lieu of $1 million bond at Jackson County Jail since the shooting, was unavailable for comment. He has claimed that he did not intend to kill the officer, sources said.)

Jury selection is scheduled to start March 15. No court date has been set for the civil case, but it will not take place until after the criminal trial. The outcome of the murder case is also likely to affect the civil case.

The two cases will most certainly renew criticism of the record industry and rekindle the free-speech debate over rock and rap lyrics. In past music-related wrongful-death civil cases against heavy metal artists Ozzy Osbourne and Judas Priest, judges have ruled that controversial song lyrics are protected by the First Amendment. Several obscenity cases involving Miami rappers 2 Live Crew were also dismissed or defeated on free-speech grounds in recent years.

Even if Time Warner prevails in the Texas civil case, record industry representatives expressed concern that the costly legal battle and negative press facing the New York-based media giant in the months ahead will only intensify criticism of the entertainment business, which has grown increasingly more cautious about releasing "gangsta" rap records.

"In every other industry, companies are held liable for dangerous products they produce," said Ron DeLord, president of the Combined Law Enforcement Association of Texas, the police group that initiated the boycott against Time Warner over Ice-T's music. "If it's illegal to produce physical pollution, it ought to be illegal to produce mental pollution."

Since the Ice-T/"Cop Killer" controversy this summer, record industry firms have beefed up lyric review committees to screen troublesome, violent and sexually explicit projects before they get recorded. Whether the case against Tupac and Time Warner is successful, it seems certain to intensify the pressure on record companies.

"Imagine what a nightmare it would be if a preposterous suit like this ever succeeded in court," said Jason Berman, president of the Recording Industry Association of America, the Washington organization that represents the nation's major record labels. "What if everyone who committed a crime could offer the defense that a record or a movie or a book influenced his actions? A ruling like that would not only restrict free speech in the future, it would turn the concept of what we consider to be artistic freedom completely on its head."

Robert Bell, the Texas district attorney who will argue that Howard deserves the death penalty, also is convinced the case will be a ground-breaker, but for a different reason.

"Frankly, it doesn't matter to me whether Tupac told him to kill somebody or whether Charlie Manson or the Devil told him do it," Bell said. "There isn't any doubt in my mind that this young man is responsible for his conduct.

"But the big question here is whether he should be put to death or whether he should get life imprisonment for the crime. Can violent music, like drugs or alcohol, be considered a mitigating factor in the shooting? To my knowledge, there has never been a murder trial before where a jury has had to answer that question."

Howard's attorneys plan to introduce the music argument in the penalty phase of Howard's trial. If he is convicted, they hope to prove that music can affect the actions of a person committing a crime in order to win a sentence of life in prison for Howard.

"In all my years of defending inner-city clients I have never introduced music before as a mitigating circumstance in a murder case," said Al Tanner, Howard's court-appointed attorney. "But I do believe it applies in this case. Without the music riling him up, I do not think that this incident would have occurred."

In the civil suit, Davidson's widow intends to test the limits of free speech, holding Time Warner accountable for manufacturing music containing constitutionally unprotected "fighting words" -- a legal term that is frequently applied to inflammatory language intended to provoke illegal acts.

"Our goal is to punish Time Warner and wake up the executives who run the music business," said Jim Cole, the attorney representing Linda Davidson. "This suit isn't just about some story-teller spouting militant rhetoric here. Tupac is dangerously serious. This suit is about stopping giant corporations from shamelessly making money off music designed to incite impressionable young men to shoot and kill cops like Bill."

Davidson is seeking unspecified money damages to compensate for her husband's death. She is also suing for punitive damages and to recover money for medical bills and financial support for herself and their two children.

Austin attorney James George, who is representing Time Warner in the civil case, said he thought the lawsuit was motivated by reasons that have nothing to do with rap.

"It is ridiculous for anyone to seriously believe that this terrible tragedy could have been caused by Tupac Shakur or Time Warner," George said.

Time Warner is expected to argue that Davidson's shooting had nothing to do with Shakur's music, but was prompted by a history of crime and social problems that haunted Howard from childhood.

"Tupac is an artist who writes protest music about inner-city tensions," George added. "We do not want to comment on the defendant's history at this time, but this idea that the music caused the shooting has no basis in fact or law." Shakur -- a nationally known rapper and actor who was in the 1991 film "Juice" and will star opposite Janet Jackson in director John Singleton's upcoming "Poetic Justice" -- declined to be interviewed.

The widow's civil case has already attracted the attention of North, the ex-Reagan White House aide and Iran-contra figure, whose Freedom Alliance joined this summer's effort to boycott Time Warner and stop the sale of Ice-T's "Cop Killer."

North contacted Davidson's attorney in early September after the suit was filed against Time Warner, offering to provide free legal advice and expert testimony during the civil trial. Cole said Davidson's widow hopes that her civil case against Time Warner "stops the recording industry in its tracks."