Rappers album content leads to criminal charges

December 2014



HipHop Dx reports that rapper Tiny Doo is facing criminal charges because his “No Safety” album implies that the rapper has gang ties. Doo (Brandon Duncan) is charged under laws that make it an offence to benefit from the violent actions of fellow gang members. According to ABC 10, whilst Duncan has no criminal record,  he and 14 other members of the gang are being charged for being involved in nine shootings since April 2013. Prosecutors are saying that Tiny Doo’s “No Safety” album sales have been supported by the reputation of the gang. This is the first time the law is being put into effect.  The No  Safety cover artwork features a gun and bullets. The lyrics discuss themes such as selling drugs, killing foes and making a better life for his family. Duncan’s attorney, Brian Watkins, says that there is no reason for his client to be charged saying “He has no criminal record. Nothing in his lyrics say go out and commit a crime. Nothing in his lyrics reference these shootings, yet they are holding him liable for conspiracy. There are huge constitutional issues.” Law professor Alex Kreit added “The Constitution says it can’t be a crime to simply make gangster rap songs and hang out with people that are committing crimes,” and “You have to have more involvement than that.” HipHopDx also reported that  lyrics and music videos were used in the trial of Ra Diggs, with the judge saying it was permissible in order to prove “a pattern of criminal activity.” And Vonte Skinner, the defendant in a 2008 trial for his involvement in a 2005 shooting had 13 pages of lyrics that were composed before the shooting admitted as evidence to show his ‘propensity for violence’.  The lyrics did not mention the victim or specific details of the crime but were ruled admissible by the trial judge. In 2012, Skinner’s conviction was overturned by an appellate court that ruled the lyrics shouldn’t have been admissible in the trial. That majority opinion stated, “We have a significant doubt about whether the jurors would have found defendant guilty if they had not been required to listen to the extended reading of these disturbing and highly prejudicial lyrics.” In January 2014 the state appealed the ruling to the New Jersey Supreme Court. In August 2014 The New Jersey State Supreme Court held by a vote of 6-0, that the attempted murder conviction of “aspiring rapper and small-time drug dealer” Vonte Skinner must be overturned, saying that the extensive reading of Skinner’s violent rap lyrics during his trial unfairly prejudiced the jury.

A number of academic commentators as well as rappers themselves have argued that rap lyrics are largely fictional, artistic works, and introducing their sometimes violent and graphic content at trial unfairly taints juries and a musical art form is mistakenly being used as evidence where there is little other evidence. In its ruling, the New Jersey State Supreme Court stated that Skinner’s rap lyrics had little connection to the case at hand and their introduction risked “poisoning the jury.” The Court wrote “…the violent, profane, and disturbing rap lyrics authored by defendant constitute highly prejudicial evidence against him that bore little or no probative value as to any motive or intent behind the attempted murder offense with which he was charged.

But cases do go to court. Based largely on a rap he wrote, and accounts of two witnesses given years after the shooting, rapper Antwain Steward was arrested and charged with double murder – and whilst in custody facing trial was asked why his lyrics were violent. Steward explained that his lyrics reflected his life and what was expected in the ‘land of hard core rap’. He was found not guilty of murder but was convicted on a weapons charge. In some cases, such as that of Derek Green, where a clear and unequivocal link between lyrics and a criminal charge can be shown (here Green rapped about killing his wife) the lyrics will be admitted. Green was sentenced to life..

The Supreme Court of the United States has now begun a hearing which may add some clarity. The case involves violent, threatening and menacing messages allegedly posted by an ex-husband, one Anthony Elonis, on Facebook after he and his wife separated which he says was just ‘blowing off steam’ and should be protected as free speech under the First Amendment – although the First Amendment does NOT cover ‘true threats’. Mr Elonis’s lawyers say that the meaning of so called threats (and indeed some rap lyrics) must “turn on the speaker’s intent.”





Elonis v United States 13-983 U.S http://www.scotusblog.com/case-files/cases/elonis-v-united-states/ and see http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2014/12/03/should-facebook-do-more-to-monitor-violent-expressions/a-potential-censorship-or-criminalization-of-rap-music

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