Rhymes and Reason: Lyrics as Evidence in Young Thug Trial
We're familiar with the right to remain silent, but can anything you rap be used against you in a court of law? If you've been following the case of rapper Young Thug and his YSL co-defendants, you may have heard his legal team's battle with Georgia prosecutors over using the rapper's lyrics as evidence in court.
The state of Georgia has charged the rap artist Jeffrey Lamar Williams with violating RICO, including participation in criminal street gang activity and possession of a firearm in furtherance of a crime (and some other drug-related crimes). The RICO charge alleges that he and other members of the Young Slime Life (YSL) gang were involved in a variety of criminal activities, including drug trafficking, murder, and robbery. The gang is also accused of extortion and witness intimidation. If convicted, Young Thug could face life in prison.
Now, as trials have been underway against the YSL crew, the trial court just dropped a major decision that could conceivably make a major difference in the outcome: it's decided to let in the defendants' rap lyrics as evidence in front of the jury.
Thug Judge Lets in Lyrics
The Georgia trial court judge, Judge Ural Glanville, said "yes" to the question that the attorneys in this infamous court proceeding have been grappling with for some time now: can rap lyrics that describe or imply that a defendant committed an unlawful act be presented as evidence in a trial?
Specifically, the lyrics in question were 17 different lines from tracks created by Thug and other artists from YSL. The judge decided that the prosecutors in the case could present these lyrics in court as part of their argument on several points they were trying to prove: that the alleged gang exists; that Thug and others were part of the gang; and the defendants' state of mind regarding the crimes that they allegedly committed.
But Thug's situation is nothing new; evidentiary use of rap lyrics, and creative expression in general, has been an ongoing issue since the early 90s.
Laws Against "Expression" as Evidence
Last year, California took a major stance on this question when it passed the Decriminalizing Artistic Expression Act. This law limits the use of creative works as evidence against their creators in court proceedings. Its goal is to protect artists from having their creative expression used against them as evidence in a trial.
Specifically, the law covered cases where a form of "creative expression" is admitted as evidence of guilt. It defined "creative expression" as "expression or application of creativity or imagination in the production or arrangement of forms, sounds, words, movements, or symbols, including, but not limited to, music, dance, performance art, visual art, poetry, literature, film, and other such objects or media." It created a new court rule that would let the affected party request the judge to instruct the jury: "You should not use the evidence to support a finding that the defendant has the propensity to commit a crime or as character evidence."
Importantly, though, the law did not actually ban the lyrics or other types of creative expression from being presented to the jury. It merely provided for a jury instruction. A jury instruction is a guideline that is given by a judge to a jury, a set of instructions that explain the law to the jury and help them to understand their role in the trial. Jury instructions are an important part of the trial process; in theory, they're meant to ensure that the jury reaches a fair verdict by weighing the evidence presented appropriately.
But jury instructions can be controversial because there's no way to make sure a juror will apply them. In the case of the California law, how effective is it going to be to let the jury listen to incriminating lyrics and tell them not to give them too much weight? It might be like asking someone not to think about a pink elephant.
Even if the California law were in effect in New York, where the trial was held, it probably wouldn't have been that helpful. What Thug's lawyers wanted was not a jury instruction, but something to keep the lyrics from being read to the jury in the first place. This can done through a motion to exclude or motion to strike.
A motion to exclude is a pre-trial motion that is filed with the court to ask the judge to exclude certain evidence from being presented at trial. A motion to strike happens when evidence has already been presented, so it's too late for a motion to exclude to be helpful. In that case, the attorney will ask the judge to "strike" testimony from the record. This is often less helpful, since the jury has probably already heard it once.
There are lots of reasons that are grounds for excluding evidence, and they're all covered by the rules of evidence. In this case, the defense argued that the lyrics were not relevant and "probative" (meaning that they weren't really helpful for the jury's decision-making on questions of guilt) and were more "prejudicial" than helpful (meaning that they risked giving the jury the wrong idea).
These types of motions can be a significant blow to a prosecutor's case, as they can deprive them of key evidence that they were planning to use to prove their case. But here, the judge did not grant the defendant's motions to leave out the rap lyrics.
Consequences of One Judge's Ruling
Judge Glanville's decision was certainly a controversial one, but this is not the first time the judge has made headlines for how he runs his courtroom. On separate occasions earlier this year, the judge literally assigned homework – a 17-page essay – to multiple people in the Young Thug case who got on his nerves (an attorney and a juror). He assigned another attorney in the case to buy everyone lunch for being a few minutes late to a court proceeding.
But this decision is different: it truly could affect the verdict for the defendants. What's more, it could have a major influence on the future of evidence law. On the one hand, this ruling is technically not binding on other and future courts, since it's set by a trial court rather than a court of appeals; other judges are not required to follow the evidentiary rulings of trial courts. But it could still be significant. Especially given how visible this case has been in national news, it's possible that the decision could influence similar future evidentiary rulings in other cases. The decision to let the lyrics in could also be appealed to higher courts, which could set a binding ruling for future questions like this one.
- Is Being a Rapper Evidence of a Crime? (FindLaw's Don't Judge Me podcast)
- Can Rap Lyrics Get You Arrested? (FindLaw's Law and Daily Life)
- What Are the Rules of Evidence? (FindLaw's Learn About the Law)
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