Rap Lyrics as Confessions

When may rap lyrics written by a defendant be admitted as evidence of guilt? That question has been in the news quite a bit lately as a result of a decision by the Nevada Supreme Court. (For example, see this ABC News story, or this Washington Post piece.) There’s also some North Carolina authority on point, so I thought the topic was worth a post.

The Nevada ruling. The Nevada case is Holmes v. State, __ P.3d __, 2013 WL 4477058 (Nev. Aug. 22, 2013). The defendant and his accomplices lured a drug dealer to a recording studio for the purpose of robbing him. The defendant, who was wearing a ski mask, attacked the victim, beat him, turned his pockets inside out, ripped off his necklace, and shot and killed him. The defendant was eventually arrested and charged with murder. While in jail, he wrote a number of rap songs, one of which was titled Drug Deala. It included the following lyrics: “I catching slipping at the club and jack you for your necklace. . . . Man I’m parking lot jacking, running through your pockets with uh ski mask on straight laughing.”

The state sought to introduce the lyrics, and the trial court admitted the evidence, though with a limiting instruction that the lyrics could be viewed as “confessions, admissions, or neither,” and shouldn’t be used to conclude that the defendant was a bad person with a propensity to commit crimes. The defendant was convicted and appealed, and a divided state supreme court affirmed. The majority acknowledged that rap music may often contain violent storylines and exaggerations, but found that the lyrics in question were relevant and survived Rule 403 balancing because the “details . . . mirror the crime charged.” The dissenting justice argued that the lyrics were “not clearly an admission rather than artistic expression, and they are not sufficiently specific as to be relevant to the charged crimes.”

North Carolina law. There are a couple of North Carolina cases in this area. The most relevant is the unpublished case of State v. Allen, 2006 WL 2529580 (N.C. Ct. App. Sept. 5, 2006) (unpublished) (“At trial, defendant objected to the introduction of rap song lyrics written by defendant while in custody awaiting trial for [a] murder,” but “[t]he trial court found the lyrics sufficiently similar to the facts and circumstances surrounding the murder” to be admissible over Rule 401 and Rule 403 objections; the court of appeals affirmed based on “similarities between the lyrics and the facts of the case”). Marginally relevant is State v. Bryant, 196 N.C. App. 154 (2009) (police seized a notebook from a murder suspect that contained “rap lyrics defendant had written about the shootings”; the lyrics were subsequently admitted as evidence; the issue on appeal concerns whether the seizure was proper; the court rules that it was and therefore, “[t]he trial court properly allowed the notebook, and [the lyrics] into evidence”). Generally, it appears that the touchstone of admissibility is the degree of similarity between the lyrics and the facts of the charged offense.

Other authorities. For a federal case in the same general vein, see United States v. Stuckey, 253 Fed. App’x 468 (6th Cir. 2007) (“Stuckey’s lyrics concerned killing government witnesses and specifically referred to shooting snitches, wrapping them in blankets, and dumping their bodies in the street – precisely what the Government accused Stuckey of doing [to the victim] in this case”; the lyrics were therefore relevant and admissible).

This topic has also been explored in a couple of law review articles. See, e.g., Andrea Dennis, Poetic (In) Justice? Rap Music Lyrics as Art, Life, and Criminal Evidence, 31 Colum. J.L. & Arts 1 (2007) (criticizing the frequent admission of lyrics against defendants and emphasizing “the negative impact this . . . will have on the production and quality of art when individuals must worry that their artistic sensibilities and creative expressions might later be used against them in a criminal prosecution”); Jason E. Powell, Note, R.A.P.: Rule Against Perps (Who Write Rhymes), 41 Rutgers L.J. 479 (2009) (collecting cases and arguing that, despite the weight of authority to the contrary, “rap lyric should not be permitted in the courtroom except, perhaps, on rare occasions”).

Final note. There are a lot more cases about rap lyrics than other kinds of lyrics, but the legal principles set forth above would presumably apply equally to other musical genres. For example, if any of the Dixie Chicks were suspected of involvement in a domestic violence related homicide, Goodbye Earl (lyrics here) might be an important piece of evidence for the prosecution.