Criminal Justice

Do rapper's lyrics support conviction? ACLU cites Johnny Cash song, says lower court was wrong


“I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die,” Johnny Cash famously sang in “Folsom Prison Blues,” which he himself wrote.

No one accused the country legend of murder based on that song. But a growing number of rap artists are finding that their lyrics can be used against them in court, as evidence of character, motive, intent or even a claimed confession to the crime depicted in their music. Some also are facing criminal charges on the theory that their music—by describing incidents of violence, real or potential—threatens others, the New York Times (reg. req.) reports.

Another New York Times (reg. req.) article provides examples of specific cases in which rap music was used as evidence.

Such evidence is controversial, and the New Jersey Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments soon in an appeal of a case in which rap lyrics were used as evidence of motive and intent to help convict Vonte Skinner of attempted murder. Meanwhile, however, rap lyrics are being relied on in cases nationwide, and law enforcement officers are being instructed to look for it during investigations.

Prosecutors including Jacqie Spradling, the chief deputy district attorney for Shawnee County, Kan., say this makes sense. “If there had actually been a man in Reno that died,” she said, “and Johnny Cash was standing there watching it, it’s not too far of a jump to say that, ‘Hey, Cash may have been the one involved.’ “

Spradling is now prosecuting a Kansas murder case in which Philip Cheatham is accused of murder based, in part, on rap lyrics found in a notebook in his car. They match the facts of an actual crime that happened to people he knew, the government says.

Others question the extent to which rap lyrics are being relied on to prove criminal cases and say the focus on one genre of music may violate the First Amendment rights of singers and songwriters.

Where to draw the line between artistic expression and claimed factual content and what kind of foundation is needed to introduce rap music into evidence isn’t settled. Yet lyrics are being treated as if they were true and, even more damaging, YouTube videos that may give juries a negative view of defendants are being screened in criminal trials in the nation’s courtrooms, assistant professor Erik Nielson of the University of Richmond tells the newspaper.

“What’s getting really unnerving,” he says, “is the amount of time it appears both police and prosecutors are spending over rap lyrics and videos on social media rather than using that time to go and gather more convincing, more conventional forms of evidence.”

The New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has filed a brief (PDF) on Skinner’s behalf in the New Jersey case. It argues that the trial judge should not have admitted the rap music evidence that helped convict him because of the First Amendment implications of the lyrics. The filing cites the “Folsom Prison Blues” song and asks the supreme court to adopt standards that set a higher threshold for admitting such evidence, the Associated Press reports.

“We’re not saying song lyrics can never be evidence, but that there needs to be a direct connection to the crimes,” said Jeanne LoCicero. She serves as deputy legal director of the ACLU of New Jersey.

Related coverage:

ABAJournal.com: “Should violent rap lyrics be admissible in a criminal trial? New Jersey supremes to decide”

Topeka Capital-Journal: “Cheatham defense attorney challenges death penalty in Kansas”

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