The line between artistic expression and real-life experience has always been a point of contention when trying to evaluate hip-hop. This debate came to a head when a Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that rap lyrics can be used as evidence of a defendant’s guilt in court.
Per Courthouse New Service, this verdict came as part of Lawrence Montague's murder conviction. Three weeks before his trial, the 27-year-old, who is from Annapolis, rapped lyrics into a jail phone which were then uploaded to Instagram. These lyrics were used to argue Montague's guilt in the crime.
"I’ll be playing the block bitch/And if you ever play with me/I’ll give you a dream, a couple shots snitch/It’s like hockey pucks the way I dish out this/It’s a .40 when that bitch going hit up shit," Montague rapped.
At his trial, the state used these lyrics to convict Montague of the January 2017 killing of George Forrester. According to the court, Montague murdered Forrester for trying to purchase cocaine with a fake bill. Montague was sentenced to 50 years for second-degree murder and use of a firearm in a crime of violence.
Montague and his legal team decided to appeal the conviction because the rap lyrics were used as evidence against him. Yet, the court of appeals sided with the original conviction, confirming that rap lyrics can be used as evidence in a case.
"While rap lyric evidence often has prejudicial effect as improper propensity evidence of a defendant’s bad character, those concerns are diminished when the lyrics are so akin to the alleged crime that they serve as ‘direct proof’ of the defendant’s involvement," Judge Joseph Getty said.
Getty went on to claim that Montague's five bars also served as potential witness tampering since he "threatened" snitches in the rhyme like the person that testified against him. He also mentioned .40 caliber bullets which were used in the murder.
As expected, there were people who took objection to this ruling. Veteran music industry attorney Dina LaPolt wrote in Variety that the verdict was "blatantly racist decision is a travesty that sets a dangerous precedent." Also, Judge Shirley Watts wrote a dissent to Getty's ruling, explaining that it uses generic artistic creativity against suspects.
"[The ruling] essentially permit rap lyrics containing generic references to violence to be admitted into evidence despite the danger of unfair prejudice substantially outweighing any minimal probative value of the evidence," Watts wrote.
Montague’s attorney added that the prosecution scanned these lyrics for deeper meanings since there was "scant other evidence in the case."