Criminal trials in rap are frequent (especially in the last few years), but they don’t come without some surprises. The information that is usually divulged in those court proceedings tends to prompt some shock and awe, and the murder trial of XXXTentacion has been no exception. The trial began on Feb. 7 and was against three defendants—Michael Boatwright, Dedrick Williams, Robert Allen, and Trayvon Newsome—who have been accused of carrying out the rapper’s murder outside of a motorsports facility in June 2018. The courtroom has heard damning testimony from witnesses and lawyers in the past two weeks. The most startling revelation from the trial thus far was the mention of global superstar Drake.
Following the first day of trial, news broke that Drake had been summoned to give a deposition in relation to his past beef with the slain rapper at the end of the month. But, in a turn of events, the judge dismissed the original order.
“No evidence has been provided to substantiate the assertion that the Non-Party in any way contributed to, had knowledge of, or participated in the alleged incident,” Drake’s attorney Bradford Cohen wrote of the deposition request in a court filing. “And to mandate that he appear for deposition for something that he very clearly has no relevant knowledge of is unreasonable.”
Drake may be off the hook, but federal and state defense attorney David Haas tells Complex that the possibility of rap beefs winding up in criminal cases like this is likely. Haas is an expert defense attorney and founder of Haas Law, PLLC based in Florida, who represents clients in federal courts around the country. He also has experience on the other side of the courtroom as a former state and federal prosecutor. Complex spoke with Haas on the phone to gain insight into why Drake was being mentioned, why his deposition order was dismissed, and how this may set a precedent for other rappers who have engaged in beef online.
To start, why did Mauricio Padilla point the finger at someone else?
It’s our job to raise opportunities of reasonable doubt. If there’s other individuals out there who may have been motivated to hurt someone, we have obligations to pursue those in our investigation. There’s plenty of people that may not like somebody, and the state or the government always has to prove that there’s a crime that’s committed, and that our client’s the one that committed it. Does some of that have the potential to be nonsense? Yeah. But I’m not going to say that’s not true either.
While that makes sense, a lot of people are caught up on the fact that the person he pointed to is one of the biggest stars in the music business. Does that strike you as unusual?
The person who was killed here is somebody who was famous. It’d be different if I represent a husband accused of killing his wife, and I say that Bill Gates was involved. That’s a whole nother level. Now, if I am the owner or CEO of one of Gates’ companies, and I run in the same circles, and he and I have had a friendship. If we’ve had disagreements or maybe he dated or tried to flirt with my wife, or the wife of that person, it changes the landscape.
“It’s our job to raise opportunities of reasonable doubt.”
The only information that was divulged regarding Drake’s possible involvement was an Instagram Story X posted that was deleted a year before his death. Investigating all suspects is one thing, but is a deleted post enough to warrant a request for deposition?
Well, if I leave my criminal defense attorney hat on, I’ve got to investigate, even if there’s a powerful person. Now, if there’s a video of my client pulling the trigger in an incident, Drake’s not really that involved. Everything is subject to what the evidence is in the case, but [Drake] has not been asked to testify. What he was asked to do was give a deposition in the case. That’s what’s called the discovery phase, where you’re investigating possibilities and gathering evidence. It doesn’t mean the judge ruled that Drake could testify as a witness. And whatever a lawyer says in their opening statement isn’t evidence. The problem is, promising a bunch of stuff in your opening statement and not delivering on it is not a good strategy. So, I don’t know what the strategy is, or isn’t, but ethically, I would obviously have to look into that. Plenty of evidence that gets deleted is indicative of a crime. [For example], getting rid of a murder weapon doesn’t mean that somebody wasn’t shot. So, deleting a [post], does that mean he got scared, and deleted the tweet, or does that mean that it was just him spouting off? Those are the questions that I would guess that that lawyer wanted to ask Drake.
It was interesting hearing that the judge deposed Drake and then dismissed the motion a week later. What do you think provoked both actions?
Usually what happens is Drake’s legal representatives made some filing, some pleadings in the case that said there’s no evidence. From what I could read, there was no evidence of him even being mentioned in the state’s case in any way, shape, or form. It’s literally just this fishing expedition and unduly burdensome for something so remote. So Drake’s legal team satisfied the burden to show that there’s nothing there, which is how the process is designed to work.
Had he been successfully deposed, how do you think Drake’s deposition would have impacted the rest of the trial?
I don’t think it would’ve impacted it at all. It would’ve been a fishing expedition where there would’ve been no evidence of anything there.
“Drake’s legal team satisfied the burden to show that there’s nothing there, which is how the process is designed to work.”
Since the Drake angle didn’t work, and there is a stack of evidence piled against the defendants, including surveillance footage, how would you move forward as a defense attorney?
I tell clients that there can be a lot of defenses to any case. There are oftentimes a lot of bad defenses to a case. So having a credible defense is certainly what I try to look for when defending clients. Sometimes if the evidence is overwhelming, you have to end up having to go with a bad defense. Still, the state has to convince all 12 people on the jury that somebody’s guilty. The defense just has to convince one person for a hung jury. That’s what [the defense attorneys in this trial are] going for.
If Drake can be mentioned in a case based off of a deleted post and rap beef dating back to 2017, does this set precedent for other rappers who have been involved in rap beef with individuals who have been slain or targeted?
The First Amendment guarantees everyone the right to free speech, but the First Amendment doesn’t mean that it will necessarily be admissible in a criminal case. So what Drake’s legal team did was fight the subpoena, basically pointing out that there was no basis to take Drake’s deposition, and the judge agreed. This happens to be a high profile case with high profile witnesses, but it happens in cases all the time where a defense lawyer will list somebody or the state may list somebody that is way out there, and it doesn’t necessarily have a tie to much. What litigation flushes out is whether or not it’s going to be relevant or not. That is how the legal process is designed to work.
Is it possible that we will see other criminal trials involving rappers, in which their feud with another rapper is brought up?
I would not be surprised. It’s the type of thing that is going to happen. In this case, it’s sort of unusual in that setting, but it happens in cases I’ve had where somebody gets involved, or says something, and we have to look into whether or not it’s true. The only thing unusual about this is that Drake’s name is attached to it. It happens.
“Folks need to be aware of how your phones, tweets, and [other] social media posts can be used against you.”
Rap beef is frequent. There is no way to control what a client does with their social media or how they interact with other artists. But if these feuds can lead to someone being deposed with no other evidence against them, how would you caution rappers?
In the digital age, we’ve got lots of digital fingerprints and footprints, and trace evidence that gets left behind that people don’t understand until they’re sitting in a courtroom, and it’s being used against them. It happened in a rapper case of mine that went to trial for a first-degree murder. All that stuff is there. It’s used as evidence in criminal cases daily now. Certainly, folks need to be aware of how your phones, tweets, and [other] social media posts can be used against you.