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Should rap lyrics be allowed as evidence in violent crimes cases?

For some of our readers here in Alameda County, the question in today’s post title may seem strange and might solicit a resounding 'no' from many people. But this is the question being posed in courtrooms across the nation as prosecutors try to close cases by pointing to rap lyrics as potential evidence.

In states around the country, detectives are monitoring social media outlets like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube as a way to gather information on suspects. But because of a 2006 article by an FBI analyst, law enforcement are now looking at rap lyrics, which some prosecutors say often depict violent crimes and should be seen as boasts rather than artistic writing.

But do these lyrics really reflect reality as prosecutors believe? Many people -- from defense attorneys to professors of criminology and law -- say no. According to an associate professor of criminology, law and society at the University of California in Irvine, lyrics written by gangsta rappers need to be violent in nature in order to create a persona. But oftentimes, these over-the-top personas may be fictional and may not reflect who the artist really is. So while police may see a confession in rap lyrics, defense attorneys see a way for prosecutors to prejudice judges and juries into believing that a person in guilty when they might in fact be innocent.

It’s worth noting that rap appears to be the only genre of music where its lyrics are not considered to be fictional. As the American Civil Liberties Union recently pointed out in a brief, saying that a rapper’s lyrics show motive and intent to commit a violent crime is akin to indicting Johnny Cash on charges of murder for having “shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.” And if this seems utterly ridiculous for rockabilly idol Johnny Cash, then perhaps this should be the same for rap artists as well.

Source: The New York Times, “Legal Debate on Using Boastful Rap Lyrics as a Smoking Gun,” Lorne Manly, March 26, 2014

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