A trial court did not violate the First Amendment rights of three defendants when it admitted in to evidence a YouTube video of three murder defendants rapping, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals has ruled.
In December 2015, 15-year-old Zaevion Dobson was killed in the Lonsdale Homes area of Knoxville, Tenn., while shielding a friend from gunfire. Richard G. Williams, Kipling Colbert Jr., and Christopher Bassett Jr., were all charged with murder and other felonies for firing multiple rounds of gunfire at a throng of people outside an apartment.
Prosecutors contended that Williams, Colbert, and Bassett were associated with the Bloods gang, and the Lonsdale Homes was considered part of the Crips territory. Prosecutors said the shooting in Lonsdale was in retaliation for an earlier shooting in Bloods territory in another part of Knoxville.
All three of the defendants filed motions seeking to exclude a YouTube rap video, called “Double O,” featuring the defendants rapping and including gangsta-rap lyrics. Defendant Bassett in particular was an aspiring rap artist. The trial court denied the motion and the video was introduced into evidence. A jury convicted all three defendants.
On appeal, the defendants contended that the admission of the rap video violated their First Amendment rights. They pointed out that people can sing gangsta-rap lyrics without engaging in gang activities. They also noted that none of them was identified in a lengthy list of gang members kept by the Knoxville Police Department.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed an amicus brief in support of the defendants’ position. The ACLU argued that “commentators have noted the increasing use of rap music as evidence during criminal trials is having a chilling effect on artists.”
The Tennessee Court of Appeals disagreed with the defendants and the ACLU in its Jan. 25, 2022, decision in State v. Williams.
The defendants (and the ACLU) had relied on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Dawson v. Delaware (1992), finding that a defendant’s First Amendment rights were violated when a court allowed the introduction of the defendant’s membership in the Aryan Brotherhood when his crime was not gang-related.
The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals distinguished Dawson from the defendants’ case, finding that the rap video featured the defendants’ purporting to be affiliated with gangs and that the shooting was gang-related.
“The First Amendment … does not prohibit the evidentiary use of speech to establish the elements of a crime or to prove motive or intent,” the appeals court wrote.
“We conclude that the trial court did not abuse its discretion when it allowed the gang-related rap lyrics and video to be introduced into evidence,” the criminal appeals court wrote. “The State’s theory at trial was that the rival gang affiliations of the Crips and Bloods provided the motive” for the shooting.
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David L. Hudson Jr. is a professor at Belmont University College of Law who writes and speaks regularly on First Amendment issues. He is the author of Let the Students Speak: A History of the Fight for Free Expression in American Schools (Beacon Press, 2011), and of First Amendment: Freedom of Speech (2012). Hudson is also the author of a 12-part lecture series, Freedom of Speech: Understanding the First Amendment (2018), and a 24-part lecture series, The American Constitution 101 (2019).