Antwain Steward was arrested and charged with
killing two people in Newport News, Va., in large part based on rap
lyrics he wrote — even though his lyrics didn't sync up with the details
of the crime.
It was early May 2007. Two friends, 16-year-old Christopher Horton
and 20-year-old Brian Dean, were sitting on a porch on 23rd Steet and
Orcutt Avenue in Newport News, Va., in the city's downtown neighborhood.
Someone walked up to the porch where they were sitting and opened fire with a handgun, both Horton and Dean.
The killings were two of 28 murders
in Newport News in 2007. Fifteen of those homicides occurred in the
south precinct of the city, where Horton and Dean were killed. Newport
News, a city of just over 180,000 residents, has been plagued by gang
and drug violence in the downtown area for years.
the sister of Christopher Horton, said that in the aftermath of the
killings, she's been the target of threats in her neighborhood.
people doing this, people causing pain to these families," she says.
"You get the bad people out of the equation, and I think it will change.
It's not the area, this area can be good at times." (Note: Tai Horton
and the writer of this article are acquaintances.)
went cold for four years, but then a detective assigned to cold cases
came across a YouTube video of a local rapper, Antwain Steward, who goes
by the stage name Twain Gotti. Steward's music primarily focused on
violence and the gang life in downtown Newport News, known to many in
southeastern Virginia as "Bad Newz." The music, heavy in percussion and
synths, was gaining a significant following in the streets and on
The detective received a tip that Steward referenced the murders in his song and was the gunman in the 2007 shooting. The notes that Horton was a member of "Dump Squad," a gang feuding with Steward's "MOR3SH3LLZ."
The affidavit quotes a verse from "Ride Out":
Everybody saw when I [expletive] choked him
But nobody saw when I [expletive] smoked him, roped him
Sharpened up the shank then I poked him.
the lyrics, Steward raps about "choking" someone. But neither Horton
nor Dean were choked. And in the last line, he refers to a shank and
"poking," or stabbing, someone.
Again, both Horton and Dean were shot.
the local police took the lyrics as a confession, and charged Steward
in the Horton and Dean killings. Steward maintains that he's innocent.
Lyrics On Trial
In 2004, Alan Jackson, who was an assistant district attorney in Los Angeles in which he suggested that prosecutors introduce lyrics as evidence of a defendant's personality:
the most crucial element of a successful prosecution is introducing the
jury to the real defendant. Invariably, by the time the jury sees the
defendant at trial, his hair has grown out to a normal length, his
clothes are nicely tailored, and he will have taken on the aura of an
altar boy. But the real defendant is a criminal wearing a do-rag and
throwing a gang sign. Gang evidence can take a prosecutor a long way to
introducing a jury to that person. Through photographs, letters, notes
and even music lyrics, prosecutors can invade and exploit the
defendant's true personality."
When Jackson spoke to NPR's
in April, he argued that lyrics can be part of a larger body of
evidence that might be useful to investigators and prosecutors. "If, in
fact, we suspect someone of a crime and in their possession we find
either rap music, rap lyrics, etc., that tends to corroborate other
evidence that we have against that person, why should you be able to get
a pass just because you call it art?" he asked.
Jackson went on:
"And I'll give you an example. Tattooing is often called art. In 2008, in People v. Anthony Garcia,
there was a liquor store murder that had gone unsolved for about four
years until Mr. Garcia was pulled over for, I think, driving on a
suspended license or something.
"Tattooed completely across his
chest was the name of the store, the Christmas lights that were over
the store, the bent light pole on the left of the store, the direction
of the shots fired. And very notably, Mr. Peanut was the victim. The
shooter was a chopper. Well, 'peanut' is what Rivera 13 gang members
call their rivals. And his name — his gang name — was none other than
Chopper. So the case against Mr. Garcia certainly did not rise and fall
on the tattoo, but it was an investigative tool that was used to get to
other evidence which then did implicate him in the crime. And now nobody
would disagree with the argument that tattoos, generally speaking, are a
form of art. But you don't get to confess to something, write something
down and then set it to music and say, by the way, I'm going to call
It's hard to know just how how
many criminal cases have admitted hip-hop lyrics into evidence — the
American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey 14 such cases, while reported that there were at least three-dozen similar cases in the past two years.
But critics contend that prosecutors and judges are making decisions about rap lyrics that they don't understand.
with any art form, especially with any fictional form, you have to keep
the base of distinction between author and narrator in mind," said Erik
Nielson, a professor of liberal arts at the University of Richmond who
studies rap music in criminal cases. "That's especially true for rap
music. And rappers do signal this to us. Almost all of them use a stage
name, which is the clearest indication that they are in fact inventing a
Nielson said rappers stay in character even after
they're done recording, like pro wrestlers. If someone isn't familiar
with the kind of hyperbole that rappers use — embellishments that often
reference the dangerous places from which they hail — the demarcation
between fantasy and reality can be hard to distinguish.
, he pointed to by California State University, Los Angeles professor Stuart Fischoff. He described the study this way:
were given basic biographical information about a hypothetical
18-year-old black male, but only some were shown a set of his violent,
sexually explicit rap lyrics. Those who read the lyrics were
significantly more likely to believe the man was capable of committing a
murder than those who did not."
That's why, he says, rap lyrics have no place as evidence in a trial.
In a written by Nielson and Charis Kubrin, a criminology professor at UC-Irvine, the two explore the history of rap as evidence.
than treat rap music as an art form whose primary purpose is to
entertain, prosecutors have become adept at convincing judges and juries
alike that the lyrics are either autobiographical confessions of
illegal behavior or evidence of a defendant's knowledge, motive or
identity with respect to the alleged crime. Over the last two decades, a
number of high-profile performers — including Snoop Dogg, Beanie Sigel
and even Lil Boosie's collaborator, B.G.— have had their lyrics used
against them in criminal proceedings. But less visible are the amateur
rappers who have increasingly seen their art form introduced as evidence
One of those lesser-known rappers was Vonte Skinner, who was .
Prosecutors read violent lyrics found in a car Skinner was driving. The
state argued that Skinner's lyrics were an explanation of the crimes he
was accused of, although it was established that those rhymes were
written four or five years before the crimes of which he was accused. He
was sentenced to 30 years in prison. An appeals court later the verdict, and New Jersey's Supreme Court has heard arguments in the case.
United States V. Rap, Et Al.
more rappers use outlets like Facebook and Twitter to reach wider
audiences, police are paying attention. A sergeant for the Newport News
gang task force a German newspaper that his employees spend as much
time on the streets as they do on the computer, searching through
suspected gang members' social media websites.
But at Steward's
trial, the swaggering lyrics that were the basis of his arrest were
barely mentioned; the Commonwealth's prosecutors objected to any
questions about the lyrics. The jury deliberated for a little over four
hours before finding Steward not guilty on two counts of second-degree
murder, but guilty on the weapons charges. He was sentenced to 16 years
"We do know, based upon our research, that when
those lyrics come in they often do secure a conviction," Nielson says.
"And the prosecutor's decision at the last second to veer away has a lot
to do with why Antwain Steward was found not guilty on both of the
But are hip-hop lyrics, even graphic ones like Twain Gotti's, protected speech? That's the issue ,
a Pennsylvania man who is serving nearly four years in federal prison
for posting violent Facebook statuses about his wife and his job. Many
of those Facebook posts were in the form of violent rap lyrics, although
Elonis maintained that the postings were mainly a way for him to blow
off steam. But prosecutors maintained that the lyrics were threats.
media allow personal reflections intended for a small audience (or no
audience) to be viewed widely by people who are unfamiliar with the
context in which the statements were made and thus who may interpret the
statements much differently than the speakers intended," Elonis wrote
in his petition to the Supreme Court.
The high court will hear arguments in the Elonis case later this year.