Rap lyrics play prominent roles in prosecutions

The case had gone cold.

Four years after the 2007 murders of Christopher Horton, 16, and Brian Dean, 20, detectives in Newport News had little to go on.

No suspects. No sign of the gun used to shoot the men. No witnesses to the shooting outside a house where officers found Horton sprawled next to a trash can and Dean on the front porch.

But in 2011, the case was reassigned to a detective who later came across what he considered a compelling piece of evidence: a YouTube video of Antwain Steward, a local rapper with the stage name Twain Gotti, performing his song “Ride Out.”

“But nobody saw when I (expletive) smoked him,” Steward sang in the video. “Roped him, sharpened up the shank, then I poked him, 357 Smith & Wesson beam scoped him.”

Steward denies any role in the killings, but the authorities took the lyrics to be a boast that he was responsible and, based largely on the song, charged him in July with the crimes.

Today, his case is one of more than three dozen prosecutions in the past two years in which rap lyrics have played prominent roles. The proliferation of cases has alarmed many scholars and defense lawyers, who say that independent of a defendant’s guilt or innocence, the lyrics are being unfairly used to prejudice judges and juries who have little understanding that, for all its glorification of violence, gangsta rappers are often people who have assumed over-the-top and fictional personas.

“If you aspire to be a gangsta rapper, by definition your lyrics need to be violent,” said Charis E. Kubrin, an associate professor of criminology, law and society at the University of California, Irvine.

Prosecutors say the lyrics are an important tool for battling criminals who use an outspoken embrace of violence as a weapon of control. “Just because you put your confession to music doesn’t give you a free pass,” said Alan Jackson, a former senior prosecutor in the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office.

In some of the cases, the police say, the lyrics represent confessions. More often, the lyrics are used to paint an unsavory picture of a defendant to help establish motive and intent.

Increasingly, the act of writing the lyrics themselves is being prosecuted – not because they are viewed as proving guilt in a crime but because prosecutors say the words themselves amount to a criminal threat.

The debate is playing out in courtrooms across the country. In Topeka, Kan., a judge is expected to rule in coming months on a motion to exclude rap lyrics from a double-murder case.

The New Jersey Supreme Court will soon hear arguments on whether 13 pages of lyrics written by Vonte Skinner – including lines such as “four slugs drillin’ your cheek to blow your face off and leave your brain caved in the street” – should have been admitted at his attempted-murder trial.

In Virginia, Steward is to go on trial in May.

“What’s getting really unnerving,” said Erik Nielson, an assistant professor of liberal arts at the University of Richmond, “is the amount of time it appears both police and prosecutors are spending over rap lyrics and videos on social media rather than using that time to go and gather more convincing, more conventional forms of evidence.”

“This is kind of a backdoor way in,” he said.


In the profane world of hardcore rap, verisimilitude is prized. Growing out of the housing projects and ghettos on the West Coast in the 1980s, gangsta rap made the gritty reality of gangs, violence and drugs central features.

Law enforcement took note. In a 2006 article distributed to prosecutors, an FBI analyst recommended looking for rap lyrics when searching homes and jail cells because of their potential as leads.

Jackson, who investigated gangs as a prosecutor, said such lyrics could be useful in building a case because the search for status – attaining it, crowing about it, expanding it – is integral to gang life. “If you listened to the songs,” he said, “you would literally hear gang members confessing to crimes they had committed previously and were disseminating it within the neighborhood.”

In New York, detectives monitor rap videos on YouTube to study the pecking order on the streets and grudges between gangs that might have spurred crimes.

Most rappers charged in recent cases have been amateur performers who aspire to fame, even though gangsta rap is no longer as popular as it was, having been supplanted by more mainstream party music.

Critics such as Andrea L. Dennis, an associate professor of law at the University of Georgia, say law enforcement ignores the fact that rappers do not necessarily live the lives they sing about.

Rick Ross, for example, took his stage name from a West Coast drug kingpin of the 1980s, Freeway Rick Ross. When he broke through as a performer in 2006, his streetwise image and rhymes about the Miami gangster lifestyle seemed like references to a shady past. In reality, he had once been a corrections officer.

Those who oppose the use of the lyrics say prosecutors have singled out rap as a literal evocation of reality, when the lyrics in other musical genres have long been acknowledged as fictional.

One of the few criminal cases in which other kinds of artistic work played a role unfolded nearly three decades ago in Washington, where prosecutors introduced a piece of crime fiction in an assault case to show that the author had a violent streak. The conviction was overturned by an appeals court, which said it rejected “the proposition that an author’s character can be determined by the type of book he writes.”

A brief filed in the Skinner case by the New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union turns to “Crime and Punishment” and “Folsom Prison Blues” to make a similar point. “That a rap artist wrote lyrics seemingly embracing the world of violence is no more reason to ascribe to him a motive and intent to commit violent acts than to saddle Dostoyevsky with Raskolnikov’s motives or to indict Johnny Cash for having ‘shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.’ ”

In Kansas, lawyers for Philip D. Cheatham Jr., a drug dealer and aspiring rapper who faces a retrial in the double murder there, have argued that the lyrics being used against him, from his song “Prove Me Guilty,” are irrelevant and evidence of a double standard.

Cheatham, who previously served time for manslaughter, is charged in the 2003 slayings of two women and the wounding of a third, who was shot 19 times and is scheduled to testify against him. His song, which Cheatham said is actually titled “Innocent,” speaks of women who “got killed.” But in an interview in prison last month, he said that he was merely noting the deaths as a narrator and that other parts of the song recycled lines from another work, a writing approach he often follows.

“Of course, it’s not a confession because if you look at the actual lyrics, I never say that I did anything,” he said.

But Jacqie Spradlin, the prosecutor in the case, argues that the circumstances surrounding the lyrics are quite different from any involving songs written by Cash. Cheatham’s lyrics, found in a notebook in the back seat of a car, involved a crime that actually happened to people Cheatham actually knew, she said.

“If there had actually been a man in Reno that died,” she said, “and Johnny Cash was standing there watching it, it’s not too far of a jump to say that, ‘Hey, Cash may have been the one involved.’ ”


In a relatively new twist, rap lyrics themselves are viewed as the wrongdoing in several cases.

Last month, two men in Pittsburgh, Rashee Beasley and Jamal Knox, were sentenced to prison after posting a rap video that threatened to kill two police officers who had arrested them on firearm violations. Although they argued that they never intended to hurt the officers, and that the video was protected speech, they were convicted of intimidation, terrorist threats and other charges.

“It is abundantly clear to me that the conduct of the defendants here is not protected by the First Amendment because it far exceeds what the First Amendment allows,” said Judge Jeffrey A. Manning of the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas.

Some lawyers argue that rap music is protected artistic expression, just like novels and films. They say the courts should apply stringent standards before allowing such lyrics into evidence, in part because of the chilling effect on free speech.

“There should be heightened scrutiny,” said Ezra D. Rosenberg, a lawyer who filed the brief for the ACLU in the Skinner case. “Just because it rhymes and has a beat doesn’t necessarily make it art. But you have to be particularly careful.”

That view does not carry weight with Jackson, the former Los Angeles prosecutor.

“We’re not stepping on the First Amendment,” he said. “We’re not preventing you from writing.”

Before he was arrested last summer, Steward had been making a name for himself in Hampton Roads. Rapping as Twain Gotti, he had released six mixtapes, performed at clubs along the East Coast and landed with a New York management firm.

He was about to embark on a 22-city tour when the police charged him with the Horton and Dean murders from six years earlier, when he was 16.

Witnesses told the police that Steward had previously been bested in a street fight by Horton, a supposed rival gang member. Relatives of Horton also steered investigators to a YouTube video of Twain Gotti’s song “Ride Out.”

“For him to do something like that shows me he wasn’t remorseful at all,” Dean’s mother, Nicoletta Dean-Peebles, told The Daily Press.

Steward’s lawyer, James S. Ellenson, said the song appeared to be a significant part of the prosecution’s case because there were no witnesses to the shooting, and other evidence is problematic. (The prosecution declined to comment.) Two prosecution witnesses have placed Steward near the scene, and a third says he admitted the murders.

But one witness, who said he had seen Steward with a gun just minutes before shots rang out, was originally questioned as a suspect in the murders years ago. He did not mention Steward at the time, Ellenson said. A second witness, a neighbor who said she had seen Steward run past her house with a gun, did not make the identification until five years after the shootings. The third witness, who said Steward had confessed to him while recording the song, came forward years later, after he had been sentenced to 38 years in prison in an unrelated case.

Steward denies being a gang leader or fighting with one of the victims. And the lyrics don’t neatly correspond to the crime: No knife was involved, the song mentions only one murder, and shell casings found at the scene were of different calibers from the gun cited in the song.

In an interview in jail, not far from the housing project where he grew up, Steward said his songs should not be taken literally. “I speak for the people who come from a bad place,” he said. “It’s not about me. It’s about where I’m from.”

Nielson, the University of Richmond professor, said using YouTube videos as evidence was objectionable because they can unfairly prejudice a jury even more than lyrics. “Even if the defendant dresses up in a coat and tie for his trial to present a respectable image, the video – especially if considered autobiographical – could undo that in a hurry,” he said.

Prosecutors argue that such videos and lyrics can be a highly useful addition to traditional evidence. They say their critics have a romanticized view of rappers, a characterization that Nielson rejected.

“I don’t have a problem watching a guilty person found guilty,” he said. “But I think you can make an argument that you have not received a fair trial if rap lyrics were used against you.”

Posted to: Crime Newport News News

How to be civil in comments:

 No name-calling, personal insults or threats. No attacks based on race, gender, ethnicity, etc. No writing with your Caps Lock on – it's screaming. Keep on topic and under 1500 characters. No profanity or vulgarity. Stay G- or PG-rated. Read the full rules here.

Here I am...

in a Bad-Newz Jail cell, Public Defender said court didn't go well, They threw me in here, because of my rhyme, and they're sayin' that I could serve hard time,

Grew up on the streets, tried to be my own man, Help my mother, my sister, do the best that I can. I sling a little rock, I sling a little weed, tryin' to provide the things that we need,

Had a beef with a fool, so you know that I iced him, My money, my bling were the things that enticed him, Fool tried to take the things that were mine, So I stopped him quick when I pulled out my 9,

Capped him once in the leg, once in the jaw, now my rhyme is used against me in a court of the law, They sayin' my rhymes' an admission of guilt, Tellin' the story of the fool that I kilt.


We are obscene, lawless,

hideous, dangerous, dirty, violent, and young... we are volunteers of America.

I guess, based on this 'evidence', Tom Jones really did kill Delilah, and the Kingston Trio killed that woman they met on the mountain.

And, just when can we expect a trial for Stagolee, and will the guy with the bulldog testify? How about the bartender?

major difference

If a person brags to the world about the details of a crime, details that fit that crime to a T, details that no one else knows and happens to make them [sort of] rhyme, I wouldn't go blaming the law for their stupidity.

Where's the knife?

The singer claims to have stabbed the victim. This victim was shot, not stabbed.

Now that I reread it, it

Now that I reread it, it does seem bizarre that they could get a conviction with no evidence relying on the rap lyrics alone.

Malicious Prosecution

With no evidence other than the lyrics of the song, and the fact that the songwriter DID KNOW the victim, such a Hail Mary prosecution can only be labeled as misconduct on the State's side.
If he is to win the criminal case, and his legal team file suit, they had not better pick me as a juror... especially when it comes time to awarding damages.


You think that was the only thing the conviction is based on. Probably not.

Considering that his trial is scheduled for May

your conviction of him is just a wee bit premature. But then, may be you've a proclivity for finishing early?

That there is funny.

That there is funny.

Whatever happened to...

Remember Michael Vick's cousin when they arrested him for drugs?

They ended up not worrying about him because the BIG FISH they were after was Michael Vick himself.

After they got Vick, they threw his cousin back-maybe he'll lead them to another big arrest.

We can only hope.

357 Smith & Wesson beam

357 Smith & Wesson beam scoped him.”

And what's really sad and an indication of where the country

is headed, is that violent criminal behavior is glorified at all. It says a lot about a young person when they support and promote violence. And then the community they live in wonders why there is so much violence.

Unless and until people shun and repudiate violence they and society will continue to pay a heavy price. And that heavy price is paid in the loss of life and the expense of trials and prison.

Too bad the leaders of young people aren't pointing out how doing right and avoiding illegal activities is a much better life than the characters they espouse in their videos.

Pretty good Jimmy. There

Pretty good Jimmy. There might be hope for you yet.

For me?

Not bad for an ubber-cracker, huh?

beat from hell

If you want to get away with something might I suggest not keeping a diary neither.

The rap alone should be a crime

punishable by jail. I can think of nothing good occurring as the result of listening to rap.

"gritty reality"

That's what defines "gangsta" rap. So you can't say on one hand that it's reality but fiction when it's convenient. Lyrics alone don't put people away.

Narcissism has a price. People commit crimes and blog about them. They post their crimes on YouTube. They sing about them. And I thank them for that. Idiots like the Stain Gang should have no expectation that the criminal activity portrayed in their recent video won't be used in their prosectution simply because it's art or free speech.

50 year old white male

I am 50. I am white. I am male. Not the usual demographics for someone that listens to "rap" music. I have always been open minded about just about everything. Including music. I listen to The Beatles. I listen to Wu-Tang Clan. This style of music is really no different than other protest music over the years. "Ten soldiers and Nixon coming." Anyone remember those lyrics? Music is merely a narrative of the life and experiences of the performers. To say that the lyrics are somehow evidence of a crime is inane to put it as nicely as possible. Put some of this effort we put into prejudice and hate and use it for effort to change the world we live in. Perhaps people would not sing about something that bothers us.

I never really understood

I never really understood why young drug dealers would drive around in BMW's and Mercedes all pimped out, tons of gold chains and drawing attention to themselves. They were looking to be caught. Sounds like this may be a similar situation.

Bare your soul. Tell the world!

Blurt out your every emotion in an instantaneous Tweet.

Brag to the world on Facebook ... with pictures.

Then complain about your privacy being invaded.

Is that really how you feel?

Then why did you do it?


Stupidity knows no bounds. These wannabes prove it .

It is a slippery slope but

It is a slippery slope but failing to understand that using internet videos to brag about illegal behavior, it may be the poster that slides off the cliff. For instance kids with illegal guns waving at a camera when posted should bring legal action. Also, YouTube confessions if evidence holds. It is not the same as reading Hamlet aloud, singing "Tom Dooley", or discussing Tony Soprano. It also not the same as Tupac rapping about the dangerous world of the hood. Although I am not a fan of rap, it has a place. However, rapping about crimes you committed is not that place. It is evidence not art.

His Mother

I bet he is making his mother proud.

Wanna be Gangsta

You wanted to be a Gangsta. Congratulations you did it. No go away for a long time and do your time like a good little Gangsta.

It most definitely can be used if the facts are similar

I guess if we believe that these individuals' creative art shouldn't be used as evidence if the artists are being charged with a crime, then all I would have to do if I wanted to confess to a crime, without the confession being admissible, is make sure I sang the confession.

Don't forget all the crimes

Don't forget all the crimes in the Timbaland songs. It's not in the lyrics but the stolen music behind the drum tracks.

limited use would solve the issue

A rap"confession" can and should be used as a lead, maybe probable cause for a search warrant, but the prosecutor would need better, solid evidence to convict.

And despite the way the story reads, I sincerely doubt anyone is being convicted solely on the lyrics of a song. it may be just part of the evidence if it comes in at all.

The exception would be a film of a crime being committed (driving a stolen car) or perhaps a detailed version with info only the killer would know.

I recall similar issues from the diaries and on-line postings of the mass murderers.

Also, anyone who films himself committing a crime, or brags about a crime he committed, should be convicted for stupidity, perhaps caused by backwards hats.

So then who shot the sheriff

Was it Bob Marley or Eric Clapton?

keep the show alive

More good stories for World's Dumbest Criminals

Was anyone arrested for shooting the sherrif?

I know Bob Marley is dead, but I think Eric Clapton might still be a viable suspect.

We already have their confessions on the sheriff

it's the deputy's shooting that remains a mystery. Maybe it was Frankie Laine who shot Deputy Birdwell Hawkins...

The Kingston Trio

Did a " I Shot the Sheriff " song also, I still have it on a "LP".....

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
Please note: Threaded comments work best if you view the oldest comments first.

Daily Deal |  | Promote your business