Among the targeted were singer Mariah Carey, Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley and Atlanta United goalkeeper Brad Guzan, according to a 220-count indictment.
“I think if you decide to admit your crimes over a beat, I’m going to use it,” she said, deflecting criticism. “I’m not targeting anyone, but however, you do not get to commit crimes in my county and then decide to brag on it.”
She added, “I have some legal advice. Don’t confess to crimes on rap lyrics if you do not want them used.”
Lawmakers work to protect expression
Following the Young Thug and Gunna indictments, Willis flatly told reporters she was a believer in the First Amendment, but nothing in the amendment precludes prosecutors from using lyrics as evidence.
She’s right, but there is a large contingent of artists, lawyers, professors and politicians working to change that.
“There’s a void in the law and the void allows abuse, and we’ve been trying to fill the void by changing the laws statutorily across the country so that everybody — which is everybody, and I mean everybody — gets their right to a fair trial,” said attorney Alex Spiro, who represents rappers including Jay-Z, Meek Mill and 21 Savage.
‘Accepting a double standard is dangerous’
Spiro previously served as a Manhattan prosecutor and worked with a unit examining potentially wrongful convictions. He’s seen lyrics introduced in court many times, including during bail hearings in which prosecutors alleged a defendant must be a gangster because of his lyrics and the way he spoke, “which is mind-boggling and absurd,” he said.
“I always worry in this country when the quantum of proof that should be needed in a criminal case, somebody has to try to use music lyrics to bolster that level of proof — especially with the tortured history in this country of not having people in the system treated the same as others,” he told CNN.
Asked if it mattered in the Atlanta cases that Willis is Black, Spiro said, “No.” Further queried on whether he’d witnessed cases in which artists from a traditionally White genre such as country or rock had objectionable lyrics leveraged against them, the attorney replied, “Of course not.”
“She was still convicted but her rights upheld. Accepting a double standard is dangerous is all I say,” Killer Mike tweeted.
Knox and fellow rapper Rashee Beasley were accused of threatening to kill police after being arrested with heroin and a gun. While many cases involve prosecutors tying artists to crimes by citing lyrics in the abstract, Knox and Beasley were pointed, naming the officers and boasting knowledge of their schedules.
“I’ma jam this rusty knife all in his guts and chop his feet/You taking money away from Beaz and all my sh*t away from me/Well your shift over at 3 and I’m gonna f**k up where you sleep,” Knox rhymed.
Beasley added he was “strapped nasty” like Richard Poplawski, a reference to the heavily armed man who killed three Pittsburgh police officers in 2009.
One of the officers testified he retired from the police force and relocated because of the song, while the other officer required time off and a security detail, he testified.
Knox was convicted on two counts of terroristic threats and two counts of witness intimidation, which has been upheld by appeals courts. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court cited the rappers’ specificity in ruling the song constituted a “true threat to the victims” deserving of no First Amendment protection.
What is a true threat?
Anthony Elonis posted threats on social media, in a skit and in rap lyrics targeting former co-workers, his estranged wife and elementary schools. When FBI agents visited his home, he took to Facebook to post, “Little Agent lady stood so close/Took all the strength I had not to turn the b*tch ghost/Pull my knife, flick my wrist, and slit her throat/Leave her bleedin’ from her jugular in the arms of her partner.”
Amid posting the lyrics, Elonis alluded to a First Amendment battle, saying, “Art is about pushing limits. I’m willing to go to jail for my Constitutional rights. Are you?”
Such a legal standard was too low, the court ruled with Chief Justice John Roberts writing, “Our holding makes clear that negligence is not sufficient to support a conviction.”
Yet the high court left open what the standard should be and did not address the larger constitutional issue, which analysts predicted would result in disparate rulings.
Alito predicted the ruling would “cause confusion and serious problems” because the majority provided only a partial answer as to what mental state was required for conviction, Denniston wrote. Thomas lamented the ruling left lower courts “to guess at the appropriate mental state” required for conviction. It discarded the approach of the previous appeals court, leaving “nothing in its place,” Thomas wrote.
Rappers: Our art is incomparable
If Knox’s conviction were upheld, they predicted, it would demonstrate different standards are applied to rap music than other forms of entertainment. Spiro sees it no differently today, which is why he has worked with rappers, politicians and think tanks to “lend a voice to various efforts of policy reform,” he said.
“There’s not any binding precedent that says you can’t, right? And so when the law doesn’t say you can’t do something and you’re a prosecutor trying to get a conviction, trouble can ensue,” he said.
“Given the gravity of the harm that can come from this and the important artistic rights and First Amendment rights at stake, this is an easy call,” the lawyer said. “We should not forget the history of this country and the fact that things that can be used to tilt the scales against some disenfranchised people … in the criminal justice system should be looked at very skeptically — and this is one of them.”
CNN’s Amy Simonson, Dave Alsup and Leah Asmelash contributed to this report.
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