NEW YORK (AP) — In another battleground in the debate over whether rap lyrics constitute criminal evidence, prosecutors at an ongoing New York City murder trial have shown jurors a series of gritty music videos of an alleged street gang leader rhyming about life and death at a drug-plagued housing project.
One titled “Man Down” offers the refrain, “Empty shell casings on the ground / That’s man down.” Another called “Slow Down” warns, “See if he was smart, he would’ve shot me in the head / ‘Cause I can get you shot from a hospital bed.”
The lyrics were written and performed by Ronald “Ra Diggs” Herron, whose lawyers argue that the recordings — many of them posted on the Web — are merely art imitating life. Rapping about gunplay was the aspiring entertainer’s way of being a “voice for the people in the projects where he grew up,” defense attorney James Neuman said in opening statements.
Prosecutors at the trial in Brooklyn federal court have countered that the videos show how one of the city’s highest-ranking Bloods was determined “to stand out as a real-life gangster who wrote songs and recorded documentary videos about his real-life experiences as a violent gang leader and narcotics trafficker.”
The American Civil Liberties Union has said that in 18 cases nationwide in which courts considered rap music evidence, they were admitted about 80 percent of the time. It argues that’s a dangerous precedent because the lyrics typically had little or no relation to actual crimes, and are constitutionally protected free speech that should be off-limits at trials.
In the Herron case, U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis rejected the First Amendment argument. He ruled that the recordings where relevant because they establish Herron’s identity as the leader of the Murderous Mad Dogs, a Bloods faction that sold crack cocaine in the Gowanus Houses in Brooklyn.
The decision cleared the way this week for prosecutors to show a mix of clips that included footage shot by a cooperating witness, Vincent Winfield, who served as Herron’s bodyguard before he betrayed him with a plea deal.
Winfield testified that after beating a murder case and serving a short prison term in the late 2000s, Herron was eager to send a message that he was reclaiming his turf.
The purpose of the recordings? “Promotion. Advertising his brand. Instill more fear in people,” Winfield said. “The average person looks at him like he killed someone and got away with it, so he’ll do it again.”
Some of the videos look like harmless home movies. In one, Herron stands at the front door of a project building and passes out T-shirts promoting his “Project Music” tapes. In another, he’s at the wheel of an SUV, saying, “This is a day in the hood, man. … I’m surveying my terrain.”
Another video titled “Live by the Gun” was uploaded on YouTube and features hip hop artist Waka Flocka Flame, rapping, “Live by the gun, I’m ‘a die by the gun” and pledging to shoot back if shot at. Herron later chimes in about carrying types of handguns.
Prosecutors say another clip is proof of payback in the 2009 shooting and wounding of one Herron’s top lieutenants, nicknamed Moose. Winfield filmed Herron visiting Moose at the hospital with Herron warning the assailant. “See you at a cemetery near you, man.”
Herron is charged with later locating the gunman, chasing him into a courtyard and shooting him dead.