Hip-hop on trial: When can a rapper's lyrics be used as evidence in a criminal case?

The presumptive evidence of felony should be admitted cautiously: for the law holds, that it is better that 10 guilty persons escape, than that one innocent suffer
By: The Conversation
NEW YORK - Oct. 7, 2023 - PRLog -- By: Taifha Natalee Alexander, University of California, Los Angeles

When police arrested Nevada rapper Kenjuan McDaniel on a murder charge in August 2023, they cited a music video he posted on YouTube that they say includes details of a 2021 killing that had not been made public

McDaniel, who uses the social media handle TheBiggestFinn4800, had previously been considered a person of interest in the case. His lyrics included: "Parked the car / double back on feet / the smartest way to slide / drove in / double lock yo man / make sure you get yo bod'."

As a critical race theory scholar who researches systems of oppression, I know McDaniel's case is not unique. Lawyers have used rappers' lyrics as evidence in criminal cases since shortly after the rise of gangsta rap in the late 1980s.

Rap lyrics were introduced as evidence in criminal cases against San Francisco Bay Area rapper Andre "Mac Dre" Hicks in 1992, Snoop Dogg in 1996, McKinley "Mac" Phipps, Jr. in 2000, Lil Boosie in 2012, Drakeo the Ruler in 2016, 6ix9ine in 2019 and Young Thug in 2022.

In fact, researchers at the University of Richmond documented at least 500 cases from 2009 to 2019 where rap lyrics were introduced as evidence in criminal trials.

Rap Lyrics as Criminals Evidence

Both federal and state courts have established rules that require the use of a balancing test to determine whether to exclude evidence.

If prosecutors can show that a rapper's lyrics establish motive, intent or identity related to an alleged crime, then most judges will allow for the evidence to be used.

Judges are expected to balance whether the proof outweighs any prejudicial value – or tendency to unfairly or improperly influence the jury. For example, under this balancing test, a defendant rapper's lyrics should be excluded if the lyrics will do more to poison the jury against the defendant than to establish their connection to a specific crime.

But case law regarding using rap lyrics as evidence of a crime can vary from state to state, and judge to judge.




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