Rap Lyrics as Evidence

Friday, January 17, 2014


This coming week, the Supreme Court of New Jersey will consider an appeal of a 2008 that found Vonte Skinner guilty of attempted murder. On what evidence? Inconsistent eyewitness testimony, and rap lyrics written by Skinner. The lyrics didn’t reference the victim or any details of the crime. Bob speaks with Professor Charis Kubrin who studies the surprisingly common use of rap lyrics as evidence, and co-wrote an Op Ed in the New York Times last week called “Rap Lyrics on Trial.” 


Charis E Kubrin

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Bob Garfield

Comments [3]

Paul from Boston, MA

Seems to me that if the police are investigating a particular murder, the lyrics of somebody's song should have to contain some fact known only to the police and the murderer before it could be admissible in court.

Otherwise, anybody who writes a song about an unsolved murder is a suspect, right?

Jan. 20 2014 01:33 PM
Marc Falkoff

(I guess this initially got posted to the wrong segment. Sorry.)

The piece on rap lyrics being used as evidence in criminal trials included some discussion of the Illinois criminal trial of Olutosin Oduwole, a student at Southern Illinois University. I believe a couple of important bits of context were left out of the story.

First, about the scrap of paper that was found in Oduwole's car. The guest, Professor Charis Kubrin, concedes the paper included what looks like a threat of violence (or what would have been a threat if Oduwole had actually posted the note online or anywhere else). Oduwole wrote that if money weren’t sent to his PayPal account, “a murderous rampage similar to the VT shooting will occur at another highly populated university.” The Virginia Tech massacre had occurred a few months earlier; coincidentally, six students would be shot dead in a similar incident seven months later, at Northern Illinois University. Were these threatening lines just art? Were they just part of the introduction to rap lyrics that also appeared on the scrap of paper?

That’s a nonfrivolous argument that the jury should have been allowed to consider – and that it WAS allowed to consider, with the assistance of Prof. Kubrin’s expert testimony. But the jury, of course, rejected Prof. Kubrin’s suggestion that the “threat” was part of the song lyric. They presumably took into account not only that the “threat” was not written in meter like the rest of the lyrics, but also that it was written in a different color ink (blue) from the song lyrics (black). The jury may also have taken into consideration more context that wasn’t aired in the story, including that Oduwole had purchased four high-caliber firearms with high-capacity magazines online, that he’d kept a loaded firearm on campus without permission and that he’d opened a PayPal account under a pseudonym.

While I generally agree with the sentiments about overuse of rap lyrics at criminal trials, in my opinion the Oduwole case isn’t a terrific vehicle to make that argument. The issue in Oduwole wasn’t whether rap lyrics were being used against the defendant, but rather whether a scrap of a note WAS a rap lyric in the first place. This was clearly an issue for the jury to decide, and they decided the note was not part of the rap. To have withheld it from the jury would, in my opinion, have been improper.

That said, there’s one more thing that wasn’t mentioned in the piece. Oduwole’s conviction was REVERSED by an Illinois appellate court a bit less than a year ago. Note that he had been convicted of an “attempt to make a terroristic threat.” The conviction was reversed on the ground that no reasonable juror could have concluded that Oduwole had come close to making a terroristic threat, observing that his threatening note was left in his own car out of sight of the public and that there was no evidence he was about to post the note to the Internet or otherwise distribute it.

Jan. 20 2014 12:59 PM
Walter Cheslock from Man cave

This song aint got no stinkin intro
Aint no time gotta take by big bro
for the long walk down a short road
He's a half back faced with a punk little sista
she's got so many tits no one can miss her
Her mother says that she love her
she keeps yellin go play with your fucking brother
Runnin off the the man cave
looking for the thrill that I crave
go a few 40-70's
from my pals not my enemies
It about time for the fucking out trow
Had to get this down on paper
before I forget it all for another caper
I'm stinking sixty and so what it scares me
My dogs are mutts how can that be
Just like me aint got no pedigree
were just some mutts from Long Island
NPRen as were driven
Aint making no noise blowing things up
Got a Prius in the garage
And it about enough

Jan. 19 2014 04:12 PM

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