Rap lyrics are new smoking guns in criminal trials
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An indictment unsealed last summer revealed a cache of evidence against the Yonkers gang known as the Strip Boyz, cataloging six years of alleged criminal activity.
It also revealed a gift-wrapped alleged admission of guilt practically dumped in the lap of prosecutors: a series of hip-hop tracks, some of which were posted on YouTube, in which gang members bragged about their turf-war exploits, drug sales and extensive gun collections.
It's not clear why the gang members, who went by names like Wee Wee, Sleazy and Little Gotti, distributed their music around Yonkers and posted it online. But by rhyming about dealing cocaine and shooting rivals, they unintentionally gave a big assist to prosecutors, who plan to use the gang members' own words to convict them of drug crimes, murder and assault.
The Yonkers case, which is still working its way through the court system, isn't an isolated incident. Across the country, prosecutors are using hip-hop lyrics in criminal trials against a varied group, from hip-hop headliners with record deals and radio airplay to wannabe MCs cutting tracks on laptops.
With advances in technology and the ubiquity of affordable recording gear, anyone with a cheap microphone can record a song with all the posturing and braggadocio of the hip-hop stars they're imitating -- and upload it to YouTube for the world to hear. The result, observers say, is a sometimes-blurred line between fantasy and reality that can have real legal consequences.
Prosecutors are eager to use the lyrical content as evidence and as a form of character testimony, as defense attorney Carolyn McNabb experienced firsthand. McNabb runs a private practice in Terrebonne Parish, La., and also volunteers as a court-appointed attorney for clients who can't afford lawyers.
Last year, she was given the case of 32-year-old rapper Clyde Smith, who faced drug charges after police found legally acquired prescription painkillers and sedatives during a traffic stop. At trial, prosecutors showed jurors a pair of videos that showed Smith rhyming with other local men about going doctor-shopping and selling painkillers.
To McNabb, the videos showed a group of aspiring rappers "trying to look like the big guys they see in the videos," but to the jury, they were drug dealers admitting their crimes. The jury convicted Smith in late May 2011 and he was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
"I believe with all my heart that had those videos not been introduced into evidence that the state would have had a tough time convincing the jury," McNabb said. "There wasn't much otherwise in terms of evidence."
In Poughkeepsie, prosecutors successfully used rap lyrics as evidence in a case against members of a gang known as Mad Drama.
The gang's members, who contributed to an alarming mid-decade spike in the city's murder and assault rates, had distributed mixtapes around Poughkeepsie and had established themselves in Dutchess County's underground hip-hop scene.
Matt Weishaupt, a bureau chief with the Dutchess County District Attorney's Office, successfully used rap lyrics to prosecute members of a Poughkeepsie gang named Partners 'N Crime in 2007. Weishaupt said his team cited an earlier federal case as precedent to win admissibility for the music, and said the specificity of the lyrics was key to the prosecution. Over the course of the four-month trial, jurors heard tracks in which gang members described killing rivals, robbing other drug dealers and using overwhelming violence to control the drug and gun trades in the small city.
In one song, gang members rapped about a murder before it happened. Unlike the music in the Hatch case, which included cartoonish references to violence, the PNC members rapped about the murder in detail and made good on their promises to kill their target, Weishaupt said.
Investigators obtained copies of the music by purchasing the gang's albums in local record stores, and in one case a proud gang member handed a disc to a police officer during a traffic stop after the officer said he liked the music and wanted a copy, Weishaupt said. Detectives and prosecutors spent hours deciphering the lyrics and matching the described crimes to the existing evidence, which included hundreds of hours of wiretapped conversations among gang members and associates.
In the face of overwhelming evidence, the jury took just one hour to convict the PNC members In December 2011. With its leaders and most of its members headed to prison, the gang was effectively dismantled.
Prosecutors, however, aren't always so successful: This year, jurors returned a not-guilty verdict in a widely publicized murder trial against rapper Torrance "Lil Boosie" Hatch, who was accused of paying a hit man $2,8000 to kill a rival in East Baton Rouge, La.
Like the Smith case, prosecutors fell back on rap lyrics for a lack of other evidence. They called a computer forensics expert who told the jury Hatch had recorded a pair of tracks hours before the victim was killed. The songs, titled "Bodybag" and "187," mentioned the victim by name, but the jury didn't buy the prosecution's argument that the lyrics were an admission of guilt.
Mahbod Moghadam, editor of rapgenius.com and a law blogger who graduated from Stanford Law School, said prosecutors will find it increasingly difficult to convict rappers with their own words.
With more than two decades in the mainstream, he said, hip hop has left an indelible mark on cultural consciousness, and the art form itself has evolved from the days of gangsta rap and the seemingly mandatory thug image rappers previously had to maintain.
"Thank God right now one of the trends in rap is that violence is becoming less and less a part of it," said Moghadam, pointing to newer hip-hop acts that celebrate things like geek culture and skateboarding rather than guns and drugs.
Steve Juon, owner of Original Hip Hop Lyrics Archive, said there's a difference between artists who use violence to add drama to their musical narratives, and would-be rappers who use music to add credibility to their careers as criminals.
"I don't think that reflects on hip-hop music and culture as a whole," he said of criminals-turned-rappers. "I think that reflects on a very small portion of the people who are making music and feel they're tied into the gang culture . . . even when they start getting successful, they can't seem to disassociate themselves with it."