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Rap music lyrics used as evidence in criminal cases

Rap music lyrics used as evidence in criminal cases

Using rap lyrics as evidence is a growing trend across the country, and research suggests that it potentially violates people’s rights. Here in Minnesota and elsewhere, prosecutors are trying to convince juries that lyrics are confessions, and not art.

For example, a New York City man rapped about dealing drugs, firing weapons and belonging to an infamous gang. According to the Bangor Daily News, prosecution attorneys found the lyrics to be extremely helpful when the man was charged with a number of crimes, including murder. Claiming the lyrics documented his infractions, prosecutors were successful in netting convictions for 23 crimes including drug trafficking and racketeering.

Redefining the art of rap

Rap music often contains lyrics about street life, which may include drug usage, violence and the mistreatment of women. In many cases, rappers come from those conditions and write what they witness. For some, making music is a way to earn a living and get out of a harsh environment. For others, it is a therapeutic release.

Prosecutors have come to portray rap lyrics as autobiographical confessions, which redefines the music as something other than art. Research suggests that jurors often view defendants differently if rap music is brought into the case. Additionally, in nearly all instances in which music is introduced as evidence in a case involving criminal charges, the defendants are African-American or Latino, which can further perpetuate negative stereotypes.

Protecting rappers’ rights

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, there are currently 18 cases across the country in which prosecutors are trying to use rap lyrics to secure convictions. In a 2013 case, the Guardian Liberty Voice reports that a New Jersey man was convicted of murder despite changing eyewitness testimony. Thirteen pages of the man’s rap lyrics persuaded the jury, even though the words had been written years prior to the shooting. The man, who said he was present at the time of the murder but did not commit it, received 30 years in prison. He has appealed his case to the New Jersey Supreme Court.

Inspired by the case, the ACLU filed an amicus brief claiming that introducing lyrics as evidence potentially violates a defendant’s right to free speech as guaranteed by the First Amendment. Additionally, critics of the practice argue the following:

  • Playing music or reading lyrics during a trial could cause a jury to become prejudiced.
  • Lyrics are often fictional and simply an artistic expression.
  • Music does not represent a “true threat,” as a reasonable person would not interpret them as such.

A New Jersey appellate court ruled that lyrics in this case should not be used because they were not written near the time of the shooting. The state’s high court will now determine if the man will receive a new trial.

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