Rap Music on Trial: Jay-Z, Meek Mill want rap lyrics blocked from being used in court

Jay-Z, Meek Mill, Big Sean, Robin Thicke, Killer Mike, Big Sean, Fat Joe, and Vic Mensa are among the artists who have signed on to an effort to change New York law to prevent rap lyrics from being used as evidence in criminal trials.

The Rap Music on Trial bill would prevent prosecutors from using lyrics as evidence in most cases. State Sens. Brad Hoylman and Jamaal Bailey are behind the legislation. "Across the country, we are seeing a disturbing trend of prosecutors introducing an artist's work product as evidence against them in a criminal trial," Hoylman, a Manhattan Democrat, told FOX 5 NY in November 2021. "Prosecutors are telling the judge and the jury, 'You should take this music, the words to the music, literally.'"

Here are some examples of lyrics being used in court cases.

"Two shots to the body / two shots to the dome."

The rap song paints a vivid picture of a crime committed, and it helped land the rapper, Troy Ward, in an Indiana prison for a double homicide.

Ward had been a suspect in the 2017 crime when investigators came across his Facebook page, where he posted a SoundCloud link for all to hear.

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Marion County Prosecutor Ryan Mears said the words weren't just art. They were a confession.

"The lyrics in the song very much reflected what took place in the crime," said Mears. "In terms of what people knew of what took place inside that apartment, this was not widely distributed information that you could know unless you were there."

An appeals court reject Ward's claim that the trial judge should have kept the song out of evidence, but the use of rap lyrics as evidence in criminal trials remains highly controversial.

Commentators over the years taking to magazines and law review articles condemning the practice as poisonous to juries, with some critics asking why rock and country lyrics don't face similar scrutiny, while black and brown amateur rappers and rising stars suspected of crimes see their artwork used against them at trial.

"The government is able to rely on the evidence to paint the picture either expressly or impliedly of the defendants as violent, hypermasculine, as danger to community, which draws on biases jurors may have with respect to defendants," said University of Georgia law professor Andrea Dennis, a co-author of the book, "Rap on Trial."

"Quite honestly, when the lyrics are admitted, they're toxic, they infect the case, and they almost ensure that the government is going to obtain a conviction," Dennis said.

But not always.

In 2014, the Supreme Court of New Jersey ordered a new trial for Vonte Skinner after prosecutors secured a homicide conviction using his lyrics.

The court wrote "rap lyrics... may not be used as evidence of motive and intent except when such material has a direct connection to the specifics of the offense for which it is offered in evidence and the evidence's probative value is not outweighed by its apparent prejudice."

"That was a bit of an exceptional case because it was 13 pages of lyrics in what was otherwise a weak case," said Dennis. 

More often, Dennis says, defense witnesses are necessary to educate judges and juries on the creation and history of rap lyrics.

In late 2020, Maryland's highest court celebrated hip-hop's rise from a Bronx Community Center to global dominance. The court's majority opinion namechecked RUN-D.M.C., Tupac Shakur, and Drake before upholding a murder suspect's rap lyrics as evidence over one judge's dissent.

And Mears, the Indiana prosecutor, says he took care in Troy Ward's trial not to trigger his jury's potential racial prejudices.

"The genre and the music's not on trial. It's the lyrics as they relate to this specific factual scenario," said Mears.

But Dennis, who has analyzed thousands of cases, said only a total ban can realistically combat the racist potential of using black and brown defendants' lyrics against them.

"In my decade of research, I haven't come across a case in which I’m convinced a court has made an appropriate decision to admit lyrics as criminal evidence," Dennis said.

Tekashi 6ix9ine Case

In 2019, Daniel Hernandez — better known as the rapper Tekashi 6ix9ine, a.k.a. Tekashi69, a.k.a. 6ix9ine — pleaded guilty to several federal charges and agreed to flip on fellow gang members. Federal authorities had built a case against the Brooklyn-born artist in part by using lyrics from his songs as proof that he was a member of a gang and a criminal. 

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