California's Rap Lyrics Law Is Already Changing Lives

Travon Rashad Venable Sr.
Travon Rashad Venable Sr.

The first conviction to be overturned by the new laws around musical expression has freed a man from San Bernardino, Ca. According to the Orange County Register, the rap lyrics used to put him away should not have been submitted as evidence at trial.

The state appellate court has reversed the conviction of Travon Rashad Venable, 34, who was found guilty in a 2014 drive-by shooting. He was the alleged getaway driver in the incident that left a 20-year-old man killed and another wounded. Venable was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison until prosecutors found the evidence used to prove his guilt was no longer valid.

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The report says under California’s latest addition to its Evidence Code, judges are to consider specific factors before admitting a piece of evidence that’s a form of creative expression. The new law aims to bar racial bias as a part of this evaluation. Apparently, the judge presiding over the case in 2014 ignored all the red flags noted in the bill - in part, because the bill didn’t yet exist. This finding laid the groundwork for a new investigation.

“There’s no question the trial judge’s admission of the rap evidence in this case did not comply with the new requirements for admission of creative expression. There’s also substantial concern that admitting the evidence may have had the precise effects the Legislature sought to avoid,” read the opinion by Justice Marsha Slough.

Read about the music video from the Orange County Register:

The video, made by Venable’s younger brother, who goes by the name “Young Trocc,” contains offensive language, including frequent uses of the n-word, depictions of guns and drugs, and references to violent gang activities. Most of those who appear in the video are young Black men.

The appellate justices, however, concurred that nothing in the song indicated the rapper or others in the video had personal knowledge or involvement in the shooting, only that they had heard about it. Still, the prosecution placed a lot of emphasis on the video, playing it twice for the jury during trial and a third time during closing arguments, according to the opinion.

“In closing, the prosecutor argued, ‘There he is (Venable). There he is. They kill them on-scene. They kill. Slid up Medical, left that (racial slur) head gone. That’s our victim’s murder. There he is. There he is (Venable). There he is,’” Slough said in the opinion.

Meanwhile, on the country’s left coast, a whole group of men are being charged in a series of crimes including racketeering and gang-related activities. The members of YSL, including rap artist Young Thug, are being prosecuted in a RICO case based on evidence pulled from their music and music videos.

It is up to individual states whether or not to allow prosecution based on music lyrics, but maybe it shouldn’t hold as much weight as forensic evidence, especially knowing that some people make up lies in their music.

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