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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Rap lyrics not basis for murder convictions

    There is something beautiful about the whole idea of “write what you know.” There’s a reason people find it healing to write in a journal, or write autobiographical stories. Art can create distance or it can be incredibly personal. It can even be so personal that it sends people to jail.

    In 2011, four years after the double homicide of Brian Dean, 20, and Christopher Horton, 16, the case was reassigned. The new detective stumbled across a YouTube video for a rap song by local rapper Antwain Steward, aka Twain Gotti. One particular song, “Ride Out,” mentions killing a man using phrases like, “smoked him” and “roped him, sharpened up the shank, then I poked him.” It ended up being evidence enough to convict the rapper, despite his word that he had nothing to do with the murder and despite the lack of evidence to convict him four years prior.

    His case isn’t the only one using lyrics as evidence that has cropped up over the past decade. Also in 2011, Gonzales Wardlaw was convicted of murder after his lyrics suggested shooting a man in front of an Olive Garden. The lyrics were found three weeks after an actual shooting took place at an Olive Garden, and in court the lyrics were considered a confession. The lyrics seem to make the convictions easy and quick — two words that should not be associated with sending people away to jail for years.

    A few of these cases are receiving doubt. Vonte Skinner in New Jersey was charged with attempted murder and sentenced to 30 years in prison after 13 pages of lyrics were discovered in his car. Although they were written before the shooting, the lyrics involve violence and possibly point to the idea that Skinner was involved. A new trial was ordered by an appellate court after it reversed the decision. The Supreme Court of New Jersey has heard the new arguments but has not reached a decision.

    Rap lyrics are basically being used as the basis for convictions, but should be prompting law enforcement to search further. Sure, art often reflects the truth. Art is an emotional and mental break from life that often provides us with a new perspective. Yes, lyrics that include minute details like location do seem to prove that either the person who wrote them was there, or heard them from someone close to the defendant.

    Art should not be the reason these people are convicted. If lyrics are going to be admissible in court, they shouldn’t be the majority of the evidence.

    The majority opinion in the ruling of the appellate court in Skinner’s case said, “We have a significant doubt about whether the jurors would have found defendant guilty, if they had not been required to listen to the extended reading of these disturbing and highly prejudicial lyrics.” Apart from the lyrics, the only other evidence prosecutors had against Skinner were witness testimonies that kept changing.

    The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey discovered that in 18 different cases in which rap lyrics were considered, the lyrics were allowed as evidence about 80 percent of the time. One of the major problems the New York Times brings up is a lack of understanding of the genre within the court system.

    Rap comes with a history. While some find the lyrics to be unpalatable, lyrics are not an objective piece of work that always contain facts. They are subjective. Lyrics are the outpouring of thoughts and feelings, not facts.

    Sure, they may be based on the truth and songs with particular details should prompt further investigation, but a simple song shouldn’t be enough to lock someone away for years.

    — Maura Higgs is a neuroscience and cognitive sciences sophomore. Follow her @maurahiggs

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