by Baltimore Criminal Defense Attorney Brandon Mead
In December 2020, Maryland’s highest court made judicial history by allowing rap lyrics as admissible evidence. The court held that the lyrics were admissible evidence based on Rules 5-402 and 5-403. The court’s ruling sends chills across the rapping community and has serious legal implications on admissibility of rap lyrics as substantial evidence.
In the case a drug-dealer, Mr. Montague, is accused of gunning down his victim after being paid with a fake $100 bill. The victim was in the company of Ms. Tasker. While awaiting trial, Lawrence Montague placed a phone call where he records a rap verse containing details that seem to match the crime scene details. Mr. Montague’s rap verse was also viewed as an intimidating message to Ms. Tasker, who’s viewed as a “snitch”. Montague faces up to 50 years behind bars for his crimes.
The telephone recording was later turned in as evidence against the shooter. The defendant’s lawyers, however, moved to have the recording evidence dismissed, arguing that it was simply fictional and not having any probative value.
Not-Close Enough Nexus
Although there’s a close nexus between the lyrics of the song and the details of the shooting, the ruling sets a dangerous precedent with far-reaching sociocultural implications.
In the case of Lawrence Ervin Montague v. State of Maryland, the verdict by both the district and the appellate courts was wrong because:
• The ruling fails to take into account the cultural competence of the jury to understand the ‘deeper’ meaning of the rap lyrics.
• Using rap lyrics as admissible evidence could very easily compromise the integrity of the verdicts as they can be deemed to be racially biased.
• Since rap music is mostly a preserve of a certain section of the community, blacks and other minorities, using the music’s’ lyrics could be interpreted as a criminalization of these cultures.
• Rap lyrics ought to be viewed as mere artistic expression. As the shooter aptly points out in the telephone recording: “I’m Gucci. It’s a rap. F–k they can do for—about a rap?”. Therefore, the court’s decision to admit rap lyrics may have ripple effects that effectively stifle artistic expression.
From an objective legal perspective, rap lyrics hold no probative value, and the ruling should be reversed as it sets a dangerous precedent for other jurisdictions. Such actions only set an unfair prejudice.
For starters, there’s no evidence that the accused is the composer of the rap. Plus, even if Montague composed it, no one knows the exact time he did it. It could have been prior to the shooting. These arguments effectively make this evidence to be circumstantial and with minimal probative significance.