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Expert Testimony Leads to Fairer Trials?

Special Reports

A University of Manchester academic has become a leading expert of rap music in UK criminal cases.

Dr Eithne Quinn (above) a University of Manchester academic is a leading expert of rap lyrics in UK murder cases.

When gangsta rap lyrics and videos are presented by prosecution counsels as evidence of intent to commit or confession of crime, defence teams have approached Dr Eithne Quinn, a rap expert and author of the book, 'Nuthin' But a 'G' Thang: The Culture and Commerce of Gangsta Rap' (Columbia University Press, 2005).

They ask her to explain why some young men write violent rap lyrics and what they mean.

Eithne has now been instructed in more than a dozen cases including several London murder trials. Criminal barristers who have worked with her say that defendants have received fairer trials thanks to her testimony.

In some trials, there is a direct link between a specific rap lyric or video and the incident under investiga- tion, in which case, Eithne agrees, it is right that it should be scrutinised as evidence in court. However, in many cases she has seen prosecutors seek to introduce rap music that has no direct link to the crime in question.

In several cases the Crown contended that the first-person character in the gangsta rap verse writ- ten by defendants should be taken at face value – as an autobiographical statement. They contended that the rap lyrics were 'blueprints' for violence.

But Eithne rebutted that the defendants were typically mimicking the verse form of famous rap stars. In her monograph she had explored the use of the persona device in gangsta rap. The first-person perspective helps establish all-important street credibility. So she finds it worrying that gangsta rap lyrics are being increasingly taken literally by the prosecution in serious criminal cases.

Eithne said: "The outlandish personas they adopt draw on narrative traditions of boasting in black folklore. Due to the huge commercial popularity of gangsta rap, they have become very formulaic. Usually, young men write these rhymes in the hope of becoming successful rap artists or just to entertain and impress their friends.

"Sadly, judges and juries, who aren't familiar with the music, may easily conflate rapper and persona."

In several cases in which Eithne has been instructed, the judge agreed to exclude the violent rap lyrics from the case pretrial, ruling that the lyrics were more prejudicial than probative.

Though each case is different, Eithne believes that the use in prosecution cases of rap lyrics and videos is often prejudicial – in both a legal and a racial sense. Almost all of the defendants in the cases in which she has testified have been black.

In one gang behaviour order ("gangbo") case in which she was instructed, the defendants faced a cus- todial sentence for breaching an injunction that banned them from performing their own music. In several recent cases, Eithne acted as an expert in cases in which “drill” rap videos were played in court. In these cases, prosecutors were trying to establish joint enterprise, a controversial legal doctrine. Eithne said: “The use of rap videos to establish bad charac- ter and dangerous association in joint enterprise murder cases, in which there are multiple defen- dants, is a particularly troubling trend.”

Dr Eithne Quinn / Rap expert and author of

'Nuthin' But a 'G' Thang:

The Culture and Commerce of Gangsta  Rap

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