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Dropping Bars and Bodies: Should Rap Lyrics be Criminal Evidence?

By William Peacock, Esq. on April 02, 2014 1:07 PM

Rap is a boastful and often fictional genre.

Rick Ross built an entire career on his past as a drug dealer, a false identity appropriated from an inmate, and which was recently labeled by an appeals court as "fair use."

Heck, the most "gangster" rapper of all time, Tupac, attended a ballet school before he adopted his "Thug Life" persona and became a rap legend.

The genre glorifies violence and gang affiliations, necessitating the above rappers' curation of a darker persona. Hyperbole and violence is the recipe for most successful rap songs, which makes it worrisome that prosecutors are increasingly turning to rap music as evidence of criminal conduct.

Antwain Steward

The New York Times relays the story of Antwain Steward, among others. He's headed for trial in May, after police (loosely) connected lyrics from his rap song, under the alias Twain Gotti, to a years-old and years-cold double murder. In the song, he states:

"But nobody saw when I [expletive] smoked him/Roped him, sharpened up the shank, then I poked him/357 Smith & Wesson beam scoped him."

Interestingly enough, the double murder involved neither a .357 caliber bullet, nor a stabbing, and the lyrics don't mention a second victim. And Steward's lawyer told the Times that the prosecution's other evidence is "problematic:"

  • One witness, who claims that he saw Steward with a gun minutes before the murders, was originally questioned as a suspect in the murders;
  • A second witness, who claims that she saw Steward run past her house with a gun, made the identification five years after the murders;
  • The third witness, who claims that Steward confessed while recording the song, came forward after receiving his own 38 year sentence in prison.

Three weak witnesses, no physical evidence (that we know of), and lyrics that have nothing to do with the crime.

How is This Acceptable?

Prosecutors call this evidence of "motive and intent." An ACLU amicus brief in a similar case to Mr. Steward's noted that this was akin to "indict[ing] Johnny Cash for having 'shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.'"

In a Washington state case cited by the Times, an appeals court overturned a conviction where prosecutors introduced the defendant's fictional writing, holding that "any probative value would be overwhelmed by the danger of unfair prejudice," and rejecting the "proposition that an author's character can be determined by the type of book that he writes."

That's exactly the point, isn't it? Rappers boast, rappers lie, and nobody wants to buy a record from someone who raps about mediation, or talking through problems peacefully. We've seen case after case of "fake thugs" having successful rap careers, yet somehow, an artist's lyrics are supposed to be reliable enough, and probative enough, to prove motive and intent in cases that often don't even match the lyrics?

It'd be one thing if the lyrics matched the crime, and it was a confession with rhymes and a bass line, but violent lyrics as motive and intent evidence? We'd side with the Washington court's take on fictional writings.

Then again, maybe we're missing something. Defense attorneys, what do you say? Tweet us your thoughts @FindLawLP.

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