California judge overturns murder convictions of two rappers who used song lyrics as evidence

Two men have been convicted of murder after a California judge ruled that prosecutors “most likely” introduced elements of racial bias by using lyrics from the defendants’ rap songs as evidence. The public defenders representing the men successfully argued a thorny “freedom of speech” argument that currently embroils many popular rappers.

On Monday, October 3, Contra Costa County Superior Court Judge Clare Maier ordered a new trial for Gary Bryant Jr. and Diallo Jackson, overturning the convictions of two black men in the 2014 murder of Kenneth Cooper in an Antioch apartment complex on. ABC News reports.

Bryant, then 28, and Jackson, then 21, were charged in the fatal shooting of Cooper and found guilty in 2017. Prosecutors introduced the texts to prove they belonged to a “criminal street gang,” according to a court order.

Maier said in an order that the court “concludes that the defendants’ use of rap lyrics and videos in their criminal trial, while not intended to purposefully invoke racial prejudice, most likely constitutes the jury’s implied racial bias toward African Americans.” triggered men”. order a court proceeding.

The judge said prosecutors violated the Racial Justice Act 2020 when they entered the texts into the case. The need for the law was to combat “the use of racially inflammatory or racially coded language, images and racial stereotypes in criminal proceedings”.

The law further states: “The state shall not seek or obtain a criminal conviction or seek, obtain or impose a punishment on the basis of race, ethnicity or national origin. A violation is determined when the defendant proves, by overwhelming evidence, that prosecutors used the rap lyrics to directly paint a negative image of them as black men.

By referring to the RJA, Maier becomes the first judge in the state to tie the civil rights violation to rap music, according to Mary McComb, a state defense attorney, according to the New York Times.

Explaining the significance of the ruling, Ellen McDonnell, Contra Costa County Public Defender, said, “This case realizes the promise of the California Racial Justice Act, which seeks to prohibit racial bias in policing, prosecution, and sentencing.”

During their original trial, both men pleaded not guilty, and their defense attorneys claimed they were denied a fair trial because prosecutors distorted the jury’s verdict on them.

Evan Kuluk, representing Bryant, filed a request for a new trial in June 2021 after the RJA bill was passed the year before. He initially argued that prosecutors introduced racial bias into the case when he used the texts as evidence.

“The Racial Justice Act, Creative Expressions Bill 2799 and this case are all moments of positive change to make the legal system fairer,” Kuluk said, according to CNN. “Hopefully cases will become fairer for defendants facing similar issues.”

Matt O’Connor, representing Jackson, filed in September to join the motion for a retrial.

While the two public defenders were pleased with the judge’s decision, Contra Costa County District Attorney Diana Becton said in a statement that she “disagreed” with the order.

Becton wrote: “Our office disagrees with the court but will respect the verdict. We intend to pursue criminal charges against Gary Bryant Jr. and Diallo Jackson for the murder of Kenneth Cooper and the assault of a 13-year-old with a gun.”

Ted Asregadoo, a spokesman for the district attorney’s office, said the texts were a “small” portion of the evidence used in the case, listing videos, evidence of gang membership and other parts of their reasoning that warranted punishment .

“This is not a case where Bryant and Jackson were convicted of murder just because of rap lyrics,” Asregadoo said. “The jury found her guilty of all charges, including first-degree murder, based on all the evidence that prosecutors presented in court, which established beyond a reasonable doubt that they were responsible for Kenneth Cooper’s murder.”

Kuluk said that while the lyrics were a “small” part in the prosecution’s case, they were “used as part of the prosecution’s larger strategy” aimed at portraying Bryant as a “violent person.”

This is the kind of evidence that goes into gang extensions and can be very prejudicial to a jury,” he said.

The judge referred an expert on the use of song lyrics in criminal cases, Andrea Dennis. The John Byrd Martin law chair at the University of Georgia School of Law and author of “Rap on Trial” said rap lyrics don’t reflect an artist’s reality or state of mind and don’t necessarily speak to them in society .

The order stated, “Ms. Dennis explained in her direct testimony that a law enforcement’s literal interpretation of rap lyrics is based on racial stereotypes of black men as violent, assuming that the defendants in the rap song are only writing about what actually happened to them … without any hint of artistry or the possibility of different interpretations.”

Maier also noted, “It established the jury’s implied bias regarding negative character ratings of African American men as rap artists and as associates.”

Prosecutors did so in a different way, using “racially coded phrases” that would evoke the notion that black men were violent criminals.

The judge objected to the use of terms like “gun whip” and “drug crack” 29 times during closing arguments and mention of the rappers’ use of the N-word, saying the “objective observer” would think negatively about the men after they had heard the words. Emphasizing the racial epithet, Maier said the “objective observer” would see the reaction as discriminatory and “dehumanizing.”

Prosecutors also used nicknames to describe the men.

“Each of these colloquialisms was introduced into the trial by the prosecutor at first instance,” she wrote.

A week ago, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation restricting the use of rap lyrics as evidence in criminal trials. The law requires a judge to determine whether it is the text in question

The court “considered the principles” of the new law, although it was not yet in force at the time of its ruling.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California stands behind the governor and many artists who believe rap music should be considered protected speech under the First Amendment.

In a tweet, the ACLU wrote: “In one of the first tests of California’s Racial Justice Act, a judge threw out the murder conviction of a black rap artist and ordered a new trial. Prosecutors used Gary Bryant Jr.’s rap lyrics as evidence he was a gang member. With no further evidence.”

“Rap is First Amendment freedom of speech. This ruling marks a major victory for freedom of expression. It’s high time prosecutors stopped weaponizing a form of artistic expression to send black men away to lengthy prison terms.”

The ACLU was a co-sponsor in expanding the Racial Justice Act. California judge overturns murder convictions of two rappers who used song lyrics as evidence

James Brien

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