A constitutional law expert believes attorneys should be “very wary” before presenting lyrics as evidence of crime, especially in the case of rapper Young Thug and his link to the alleged gang “Young Slime Life,” better known as YSL.
Kermit Roosevelt, law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said the presentation of rap lyrics in court could mislead a jury.
“I think the greater problem is the standard evidentiary issue of, is this going to help us get to the truth or is it going to mislead the jury?” Roosevelt suggested in an extended interview on Law&Crime’s Sidebar podcast. “Because there are lots and lots of people who rap about crimes and it’s a persona and it’s the life that they’re describing, but it doesn’t mean they did it. So I think most of the time this is going to be inaccurate and inflammatory.”
This leads to a First Amendment issue, he continued.
“If things that you say in music, in art, in dramatic presentation of a different persona, if that can be used against you, that is going to chill your artistic expression,” Roosevelt explained. But “it’s just a persona. And then you’ve got some unrelated crime and the government wants to bring this in basically to show that he’s a bad person and a criminal, that shouldn’t be allowed.”
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That also raises concerns about the 14th Amendment, whether presenting rap lyrics is inherently racist and discriminatory.
“I think there is an element of that. If you’re taking an art form that’s predominantly associated with Black culture and you’re showing that to a white jury, and the white jury doesn’t understand that people describe crimes and say that they’ve committed crimes, but of course, they don’t mean that literally,” Roosevelt said, “I think you do have the real danger of misleading the jury.”
Rap is a different form of artistic expression than, say, country music, where it’s more common to write about or claim responsibility for crimes. Roosevelt brings up Taylor Swift’s “No Body, No Crime” as an example.
“She describes killing her friend’s abusive husband. She’d never get convicted of that because, you know, she’s not referencing a particular crime,” he said. “And also, no one’s going to think that Taylor Swift is a killer just because she wrote this imaginative song about it. But I think there is a greater danger of that with young black men.”
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In the end, the government has to look at lyrics on a case-by-case basis, Roosevelt said.
“You have to ask, is there a connection between this particular lyric and this particular crime so that it’s not being used just to make the jury think this is a bad, violent person who boasts about engaging in criminal activity, but [rather] this person knows something about the crime that only the perpetrator would know,” he suggested. “Or maybe this lyric explains the meaning of this acronym. I think that actually could be useful. But in general, I would be very wary.”
He also said he doesn’t think lyrics should be used as the only or strongest piece of evidence.
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“I’d be astonished if someone could be convicted just on rap lyrics,” he admitted. “There have been cases where someone sends a threatening communication to an ex-wife or something. And then I think they try to defend on the grounds that, ‘oh, I was just writing a rap,’ and there, where the communication itself is the crime, I’m much less sympathetic to protection. But it’s very, very common in rap music to assume the criminal persona and talk about killing people and dealing drugs and so on. And without a pretty strong specific connection to a specific crime, I think that should be kept out.”
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