Many rappers have been on alert after multiple prosecutors have sought to use their lyrics as a way to convict them of violent crimes. California is one state that has legislated provisions to protect rapper’s civil rights to freedom of speech and expression.
This new law was put test in the case of San Bernardino man, Travon Venable Sr., who was convicted of murder five years ago because the prosecution used his rap videos as evidence against him.
According to ABC 7 News, a court has ruled that the video should not have been admitted as evidence during the trial, adding that it was prejudicial based on the recently passed law (2022) that went into motion this year.
The appeals court suggested that racial stereotypes and bias were introduced into the criminal proceedings by allowing rap lyrics into evidence. “(A) substantial body of research shows a significant risk of unfair prejudice when rap lyrics are introduced into evidence.”
Venable was acussed of being the diver in a 2019 drive-by shooting. He told the court he was at home, but one witness said he was there.
There was no video to show that Venable was there, but the man does appear in a video where he is in the background holding a gun. He never says anything but a line in the rap lyric references the drive-by and the prosecutor tied him to that crime with that thread.
The appeals court writes, “There’s no question. the trial judge’s admission of the rap evidence, in this case, did not comply with the new requirements for admission of creative expression. There’s also substantial concern that admitting the evidence may have had the precise effects the Legislature sought to avoid.”
Adding, “Most of the people who appear in the video are young Black men. Venable appeared in the video, but he didn’t say anything. … Nothing in the song indicates the rapper or others in the video had personal knowledge or involvement in the shooting, only that they had heard about it. The prosecution nevertheless placed a lot of emphasis on the video.”
“…we conclude the admission of the rap video without the new safeguards was prejudicial to Venable. .. The prosecution’s emphasis of the rap video at various points in the trial, including in closing arguments, likely had an effect on the outcome,” the court concluded.
This does not mean Venable is free. It means the case will most likely go back to trial later in the Spring.
The District Attorney is deciding if a new trial will be sought.