(CN) - Rap lyrics penned by a man facing robbery and murder charges were fair game for prosecutors to use at trial, the Nevada Supreme Court ruled.
Deyundrea "Khali" Holmes had used the lyrics in one of 18 songs he wrote while waiting in a California jail for extradition to Nevada to face charges that he and two associates had set up a robbery that ended in murder.
Prosecutors showed at trial that Holmes and an associate plotted to steal drugs and money from Kevin "Mo" Nelson, who sold drugs out of a recording studio. A third conspirator allegedly used the pretense of a methamphetamine sale to lure Nelson to the studio.
Nelson fought back when his assailants jumped him in the parking lot. "In the fight, Nelson's pockets were 'bunny-eared' (turned inside out)," according to the ruling (parentheses in original). "His assailant tore off Nelson's shirt and chain necklace, pistol-whipped him, and then tried to drag Nelson from the parking lot into the studio without success. Frustrated, Nelson's assailant removed his ski mask and said, 'I'm going to shoot this f@#$ing guy,' which he did. Nelson staggered, then fell and died."
Prosecutors thought the evidence matched the words Holmes used for a song he titled "Drug Deala" in jail. One stanza warns "I ... jack you for your necklace. ... Man I'm parking lot jacking, running through your pockets with uh ski mask on straight laughing."
Nevada Second Judicial District Judge Janet Berry admitted the stanza into evidence, though Holmes argued that the lyrics were just cliches found in many rap songs, and that could give the wrong impression to jurors who are unfamiliar with the genre.
The jury then convicted Holmes of first-degree robbery and murder, both with the use of a deadly weapon.
Even though "admitting gangsta rap carries the risk of it being misunderstood or misused as criminal propensity or 'bad act' evidence," the Nevada Supreme Court upheld the rap lyric evidence Thursday.
There is precedent from a 6th Circuit decision that allowed the use of lyrics to prosecute a case about killing government witnesses, the court found.
Here the trial court properly balanced the risk of a misunderstanding with the value of the evidence to the jury. "It is one thing to exclude defendant-authored fictional accounts, be they rap lyrics or some other form of artistic expression, when offered to show a propensity for violence," Chief Justice Kristina Pickering wrote for the court.
"It is quite another when the defendant-authored writing incorporates details of the crime charged," Pickering added.
The justices said they could not "accept Holmes's view that a trial court's decision to admit or exclude defendant-authored rap lyrics is so fraught with risk of misinterpretation and prejudice that a special rule imposing heightened admissibility requirements is needed."
"The lyrics' reference to 'jack[ing] you for your necklace' may fairly refer to Holmes stealing Nelson's chain necklace during the robbery," Pickering wrote. "Police never recovered the necklace, but Holmes had a chain necklace after the crime that he did not have before; his knowledge of the necklace as reflected in the lyrics suggests that he knew Nelson and may have participated in the crime. The lyrics also discuss ski masks, a parking-lot jacking of a 'drug deala,' and emptying a victim's pockets - facts about the crime that the state established."
As far as the so-called cliche, "the lyrics' lack of originality may reduce but does not eliminate their probative value," Pickering said.
Jury instructions serve to counter any prejudice that the lyrics could create, according to the ruling.
"The jurors were told that they could consider Holmes's statements, including the 'Drug Deala' lyrics, as 'confessions, admissions or neither,' and that they could not use the lyrics as evidence of bad character or criminal propensity," Pickering wrote.
It is enough to assume that the jury followed the instructions, under which "they only would have considered the lyrics if they found that they were autobiographical, like a diary or journal entry, and they would not have allowed their feelings about rap music - good, bad, or indifferent - to influence their verdict," Pickering added.
The entire stanza from "Drug Deala" that was admitted at trial read:
"But now I'm uh big dog, my static is real large. Uh neighborhood super star. Man I push uh hard line. My attitude shitty nigga you don't want to test this. I catching slipping at the club and jack you for your necklace. Fuck parking lot pimping. Man I'm parking lot jacking, running through your pockets with uh ski mask on straight laughing."