Two weeks ago, I testified as an expert witness for the defense in the People of the State of California v. Alex Joseph Medina. Medina is being charged with first degree murder, and although he was only 14 when he allegedly committed the crime, he is being charged as an adult and faces life without parole if found guilty. I was called to testify because prosecutors introduced a number of his “gangsta” rap lyrics as evidence at the trial, arguing that they should be read as “journals” or real-life chronicles of his behavior. (Coverage of the case can be found here and here. The Ventura County Star did this piece on my testimony.)
Of course this treatment of rap music is absurd, something I spent the entire day on the stand trying to explain. And yet, as I’ve pointed out a number of times (including on this blog), this is an increasingly common prosecutorial tactic: treat rap lyrics as literal evidence so that their authors (almost always young men of color) look like vicious criminals in front of a jury. It’s so common, in fact, that I am serving as an expert in two other cases, both of them scheduled for trial in the spring.
Right now, I’m in the middle of working on an article with Charis Kubrin, a professor of criminology, law and society at UC Irvine who has also served as an expert witness in more than one of these cases. We’re hoping that our work will help shed light on the pervasive use of art to put people in prison.
In the meantime, keep an eye on the NJ Supreme Court, which is set to hear a case on exactly this issue. The ACLU of New Jersey filed this amicus brief, which provides valuable context for the upcoming Supreme Court case.