When rap lyrics become evidence

Baltimore police used Young Moose's songs about drugs and guns against him

  • A scene from Young Moose's video "This Mine."
A scene from Young Moose's video "This Mine." (YouTube )
September 14, 2014|Justin Fenton, Ian Duncan | The Baltimore Sun

Like many artists of his genre, East Baltimore rapper Young Moose uses his lyrics and music videos to depict the harsh reality of his surroundings, with images of men flashing guns, drugs and cash.

But as his career seemed to be taking off this summer, with an opening slot for an arena show by a popular national artist beckoning, a city detective was working to turn the budding performer's YouTube videos against him.

After police say they found dozens of heroin gel caps in his family's home, Det. Daniel Hersl noted those videos in charging documents, writing that Young Moose "raps about distributing narcotics, violence and using a firearm to commit violence."

That's how Young Moose — real name Kevron Evans — became the latest rapper to find his creative work used against him.

The phenomenon is on the rise nationwide, as authorities mine art for use in court. Questions about the practice reached the New Jersey Supreme Court this year.

Some raise concerns about bias. Charis E. Kubrin, a professor of criminology, law and society at the University of California, Irvine, said authorities take rappers' lyrics more literally than they do the work of other musicians and artists.

"The lyrics are indicative of nothing," Kubrin said. She said an affluent director whose movies contain violence and drugs would be unlikely to be subjected to a police raid.

But D. Watkins, an adjunct professor at Coppin State University who writes about life in Baltimore's toughest areas, said local rappers' references are often authentic — and a chief obstacle to being successful.

"In Baltimore, a lot of rappers are living their raps, to the point where the stuff they talk about becomes even more important than the art itself," he said. He was not speaking to Evans' guilt or innocence in the drug case.

Prosecutors across the country have cited lyrics and videos made by defendants to aid their cases, while defense lawyers have argued that the material should not be used as evidence.

Police in Newport News, Va., last year charged Antwain Steward — stage name: Twain Gotti — in a 2007 double homicide after coming across a track that appeared to describe the killings. The rapper was acquitted of murder this year but convicted of a gun offense.

A review by the American Civil Liberties Union found that judges have generally allowed prosecutors to use lyrics at trial.

A federal judge allowed prosecutors in New York to use lyrics against Ronell Wilson in the 2003 murder of two undercover detectives. Investigators believed one set described the incident itself, while others showed the rapper's gang ties.

Wilson was sentenced to death, won an appeal of his sentence, and sent back to death row in 2013.

But last month, the New Jersey Supreme Court upheld a ruling overturning Vonte Skinner's conviction for attempted murder on the grounds that his lyrics should not have been used as evidence in his trial.

Justice Jaynee LaVecchia wrote that Skinner's "violent, profane, and disturbing rap lyrics" constituted "highly prejudicial evidence" that "bore little or no probative value as to any motive or intent behind the attempted murder."

In Baltimore, authorities began to build their case against Evans as he was preparing to open for the Louisiana rapper Lil' Boosie at the Baltimore arena.

Now, his attorney and other supporters say the timing of the charges was intended to prevent the 21-year-old from performing.

"Right now, he's at what we call the tipping point of his career," said Tony Austin, a former Def Jam executive who signed Evans to his record label. "It's messing up his career, but really, it could destroy his career."

Police and prosecutors did not respond to requests for comment.

Richard C. B. Woods, Evans' lawyer, wrote in a court filing that Hersl had been harassing Evans since Evans pleaded guilty to a pair of drug charges this May. Woods wrote that Hersl taunted Evans in the street and took money from his pockets.

"In addition, Detective Hersl repeatedly voiced his intense dislike of numerous music videos starring Kevron that had been posted to YouTube," Woods wrote.

A judge gave police a warrant to search Evans' home after Hersl described videos in which Evans and his friends brandished guns.

Hersl said a confidential informant reported buying drugs from Evans and his father at Evans' house, according to the search warrant application.

The raid on July 25 turned up 160 gel caps of heroin, cutting agents and packaging material, police said.

Evans was not home at the time, but he was arrested three days before the Boosie concert. Woods rushed to Central Booking in the early hours of the morning to bail him out. But after the bond was posted and Evans was scheduled to be released, police served a warrant for violation of probation, sending him straight back to jail.

In an emergency filing seeking a hearing to get Evans released, Woods said the arrest was timed to prevent Evans playing the Boosie show.

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