November 21, 2023

Litt on From Rhyming Bars to Behind Bars: The Problematic Use of Rap Lyrics in Criminal Proceedings @LucyJLitt @UMKCLawReview

Lucy J. Litt, Harvard Law School, has published From Rhyming Bars to Behind Bars: The Problematic Use of Rap Lyrics in Criminal Proceedings at 92 UMKC L. Rev. 121 (2023). Here is the abstract.
The use of rap lyrics as evidence in criminal proceedings distorts the art form and heightens the risk of wrongful prosecutions. Rap music is complex and sophisticated; it is an art form with its own history, norms, and conventions. Like other art forms (e.g., spy novels by John le Carré; ballets by George Balanchine; the Big Apple Circus; Shakespeare’s tragedies; Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban’s “A Chorus Line;” or songs by Johnny Cash), 1 it serves as a creative outlet and can be a form of critical public commentary. Rap is an art form that often distorts or exaggerates reality. Unlike other fictional art forms (e.g., murder mysteries, TV crime show scripts), however, prosecutors increasingly introduce rap lyrics as evidence in criminal proceedings, where the real-life stakes can be very high. In 1987, the Washington Court of Appeals considered, and denied, the admissibility of violent writings as evidence; however, courts did not consider the specific question of rap lyrics until the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit heard United States v. Foster in 1991 and concluded that the rap lyrics in question were admissible as evidence against the defendant rap artist. In the years since 1991, state and federal prosecutors have continued their practice of introducing rap lyrics and rap music videos in criminal proceedings against rappers(and even sometimes their friends and fans). Scholars and commentators who focus on these practices refer to the phenomenon as “rap on trial.” The courts vary in their decisions regarding rap on trial, with most courts and prosecutors having persistently failed to grapple with the complexity of the issues presented by its use. Troublingly, in the ensuing three decades, prosecutors, judges, and others in the legal profession have not sufficiently scrutinized the reliability of rap lyrics and the constitutional issues inherent in their misuse, in spite of studies that have shown that the introduction of rap lyrics as evidence infuses a heightened likelihood of unfair prejudice into the criminal legal process. Rap is a form of creative expression that was predominantly cultivated by Black and Brown men, and it has its origins in marginalized urban areas. The art form and its creators often invoke unsupportable negative stereotypes among jurors, and even judges. Prior legal and interdisciplinary scholarship, by experts such as Professors Andrea L. Dennis and Erik Nielson, has addressed the practice of, and problems presented by, “rap on trial.” Social science scholarship, such as Stanford University Sociology Professor Forrest Stuart’s Ballad of the Bullet, has explored the culture surrounding rap music and how that culture comes into tension with racially biased law enforcement and uninformed members of the general public. The scholarship that exists in this area tends to draw upon the convergence of these issues to propose holistic approaches to proposed reforms. This paper challenges prosecutors’ use of rap lyrics (and, by extension, rap music videos) as evidence against defendants in criminal legal proceedings: this practice often violates and undermines fundamental values of the United States justice system, the rules of evidence, and the Constitution; the practice also threatens to harm defendants, their loved ones, and their communities.
Download the article from SSRN at the link.

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