Rap

Rapper Drakeo the Ruler Was Accused of Murder. Prosecutors Used His Music as Proof of His Guilt.

Prof. Erik Nielson says in Rap on Trial: Race, Lyrics, and Guilt in America rappers everywhere are not getting a fair shake in the courtroom.

|

HD Download

Los Angeles rapper Drakeo the Ruler's violent but clever lyrics about life in South Los Angeles have captured the attention of millions on Soundcloud, YouTube, and Spotify. The Washington Post called his 2017 album "Cold Devil" among "the most mesmerizing and intimate rap albums to ever float out of L.A," and the Los Angeles Times said Drakeo the Ruler was on his way to joining the city's rap elite, along with Snoop Dogg, N.W.A., and Dr. Dre.

Then Drakeo the Ruler, whose real name is Darrell Caldwell, was arrested for the murder of 24-year-old Davion Gregory in 2018. At his July 2019 trial, prosecutors used his lyrics and music videos as evidence of his guilt.

Prosecutors alleged Caldwell was a part of a botched gang plot to kill a rap rival at a party he attended in December 2016. They accused him of then boasting of his crimes in his lyrics and videos. Caldwell pleaded not guilty, maintaining that the group prosecutors alleged was a "gang" was actually his rap crew, Stinc Team.

The jury in Caldwell's trial rejected the prosecution's theory, convicting him on one count of illegal gun possession. But the jury couldn't come to a decision on the charges of criminal gang conspiracy and shooting from a vehicle, so prosecutors opted to retry Caldwell. If convicted, he could face 25 years to life.

Erik Nielson, a professor at the University of Richmond, suspects that Caldwell's lyrics and music videos will be used again in court. Nielson is the co-author, along with law professor Andrea Dennis, of Rap on Trial: Race, Lyrics, and Guilt in America, which chronicles the growing use of rap lyrics and videos by prosecutors in criminal proceedings.

"I think many people find it difficult to imagine that these young men are doing something complex, sophisticated that could be considered literary, artistic," Nielson told Reason. "It's much easier to say, 'Oh, they're just rapping about their lives.'"

Nielson says that when their music is used against them, rappers aren't getting a fair shake. Juries generally don't possess a deep understanding of rap's history, use of figurative language, hyperbole, and wordplay. Since the 1990s, however, prosecutors have found that using rap lyrics as evidence can be an effective way of securing convictions. The strategy caught on with the rise of social media, as more amateur rappers shared their work online.

Nielson's legal testimony and writings about the misuse of rap in criminal proceedings have brought more attention to the issue. In March 2019, he partnered with Grammy Award-winning rapper Killer Mike in filing an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in defense of a Pittsburgh rapper named Jamal Knox, who was sent to prison for making terroristic threats to police officers in a song. The case would have answered the question of whether Knox's lyrics constituted a true threat, or a threat that falls outside of First Amendment protection. The high court declined to hear the case and Knox, having served his time, still has a terroristic threat conviction on his record.

Caldwell's trial is expected to begin in March. He's tweeting from jail under the handle @IamMRMOSELY.

Produced by Paul Detrick. Shot by Meredith Bragg and Regan Taylor.

Photos: Eazy-E; Credit: PYMCAUIG Universal Images Group/Newscom; N.W.A; Credit: PYMCAUIG Universal Images Group/Newscom; N.W.A Mc Ren wearing LA Raiders cap; Credit: PYMCAUIG Universal Images Group/Newscom; N.W.A Mc Ren wearing LA Raiders cap; Credit: PYMCAUIG Universal Images Group/Newscom; Snoop Dogg; Credit: TBM/United Archives/Newscom; Paper; Credit: ID 128613452 © Kasipat | Dreamstime.com; Dot Paper; Credit: ID 151141247 © Ben Stevens | Dreamstime.com; TV Screen; Credit: ID 16618060 © Kiscso | Dreamstime.com; Newsprint; Credit: ID 118766441 © Olgers1 | Dreamstime.com; Newsprint; Credit: ID 110767642 © Vnikitenko | Dreamstime.com; Record store; Credit: PYMCAUIG Universal Images Group/Newscom; Killer Mike; Credit: Gonzales Photo/Kasper Maansson/Gonzales Photo/Avalon/Newscom; Killer Mike; Credit: Gonzales Photo/Samy Khabthani/Gonzales Photo/Avalon/Newscom; Rapper; Credit: Photo 69900646 © Christian Bertrand—Dreamstime.com; Photo of handcuffs; Credit: Photo 48459889 © Shaffandi—Dreamstime.com

NEXT: New Jersey Cop Arrested for Allegedly Stealing Money From Suspects

HD Download

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Great job, you got the entire site italicized.

    1. And if you can fix that while I’m posting, you can put in an Edit button.

      1. I quit working at shoprite to work online and with a little effort I easily bring in around $45 to 85 per/h. Without a doubt, this is the easiest and most financially rewarding job I’ve ever had.VSa I actually started 6 months ago and this has totally changed my life.

        For more details visit……….Read More

  2. If I make a bunch of songs talking about how great it is to be in a gang and go around shooting people and then am accused of doing just that, the fact that I made the songs absolutely is reverent. It is not conclusive. It could be that I was just making things up in the songs. But it also could be that I was describing my life or my fantasy life I later decided to live out. Which it is, is up to the jury to decide. I really can’t see why this guy’s songs shouldn’t be admissible.

    By this guy’s logic, if I wrote a novel describing a husband’s elaborate plot to poison his wife, my novel would not be admissible against me if my wife turned up dead from poisoning. The outrage over this seems to be very misplaced.

    1. My copy of the 1A starts with just “Congress shall make no law”. The phrase “and no jury shall hear” doesn’t appear anywhere. The idea that there is speech so privileged that even a trial jury should disregard it or be blinded to it is more corrosive to freedom and the 1A than anything Trump has attempted to do.

      Musicians lyrics have been used against them, even associatively (remember KMFDM and Rammstein defending themselves for Columbine?), well before Drakeo and will continue to be well after. The idea that people should be responsible for and capable of defending their speech is not an affront to freedom, agency, or autonomy. You would expect if of Trump, who hasn’t even fired a gun at anyone, why *wouldn’t* you expect it of Drakeo?

      1. Exactly. My telling someone “I want to kill my wife” is just as much speech and protected by the 1st Amendment as my saying so in a rap song. How or why this clown thinks that the rap song should get some special status such that it can’t be used against me in court but my statement should not is beyond me.

        This is an evidence issue about the nature and reliability of a particular admission by the defendant. It has absolutely nothing to do with the 1st Amendment. To say it does, cheapens the 1st Amendment as you point out.

        1. Quite to the contrary, the premises not only of this article, but of many of the comments, are entirely wrong. In fact, putting words in “expressive” form, whether musical or otherwise, immediately renders them far more dangerous to public security, especially if they are of a “satirical” nature. See, for example, the documentation of our nation’s leading criminal “parody” case at:

          https://raphaelgolbtrial.wordpress.com/

      2. “”Musicians lyrics have been used against them, even associatively (remember KMFDM and Rammstein defending themselves for Columbine?), “”

        Imaginary lyrics when the record is played backwards have been used in a trial. Ask Judas Priest.

        1. Thanks. I wanted to say Kiss but knew that wasn’t right.

        2. 9 .oN noituloveR told me Paul is dead.

          1. And Misek proved it.

      3. I think KMFDM is doing some shows this year.

      4. KMFDM and Rammstein weren’t on trial. Yes, people should be prepared to defend their speech. And people can say whatever they want about someone’s lyrics. But I don’t see how a song someone wrote can be considered evidence of anything in a criminal trial, first amendment or not. I’ve met enough people who don’t seem to get that one can write about things without endorsing or confessing to them that I really don’t trust juries to do the right thing with such evidence.

        1. “”But I don’t see how a song someone wrote can be considered evidence of anything in a criminal trial,”‘

          https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-features/judas-priests-subliminal-message-trial-rob-halford-looks-back-57552/

          1. Perhaps it was a civil trial.

        2. I’ve met enough people who don’t seem to get that one can write about things without endorsing or confessing to them that I really don’t trust juries to do the right thing with such evidence.

          OK, boiling it down to two questions:
          1. Caldwell stands trial in front of a fair jury of his peers for words he knowingly spoke and actions he knowingly took or Gregory’s murder gets swept under the rug, which would you prefer?

          2. If you don’t trust a jury of 12 of this guy’s peers (even if only in scare quotes) to distinguish between irrelevant artistry and something more akin to a confession or testimony whom do you trust?

          Bonus question: Whatever your answer is to question 2, please rectify that with question 1, e.g., if you would prefer that no court judge him for the murder, are you OK with someone off the street judging him for it?

          1. 1 He should only stand trial for the actions he took, not for the words he spoke.

            2. No one. My personal rule on confessions would follow the standard laid out in the treason clause of the US constitution. The “confession” only counts if made in open court.

        3. This is really getting to be mind-blowingly inept and not for some higher noble purpose. It’s not like freedom to rap or be black is on trial here. It’s very much verging on the Europeans accepting rape and violence on the basis of cultural tolerance or the insistence that any group acting under the banner of ‘Antifa’ *must* be regarded as legitimate political protest and not a random group of thugs.

    2. Sorry, John, that wasn’t meant in reply to you.

      1. That is okay. It worked as a reply to me and you are exactly right.

    3. To add onto this, rap has a long history of rappers actually belonging to gangs and actually committing violent crimes. It isn’t farfetched to think these guys actually do what they rap about.

      Many rappers also like to portray themselves as actually living that lifestyle. If you’re going to sell that image to the public to boost record sales, you can’t whine that people actually took it seriously. Play stupid games, win stupid prizes.

      None of this is to say that this guy is guilty, but admitting his songs into court isn’t even a little controversial.

      1. I mean, am I misremembering Eminem and Dr. Dre in the 90s? Eminem rapping about the beef they had going on with some other rappers, him walking around in kevlar? Fairly certain Toy Soldiers is all about what’s going on in his life instead of hyperbole, and he isn’t the only rapper who’s had disagreements with peers that have turned bloody.

        Of course, Drakeo doesn’t exactly help his case with the “oh no your honor, the guys trying to kill my rival aren’t a gang, they’re just my sound crew.” I don’t remember Britney Spears’ backup dancers ever trying to do a drive-by on Madonna.

      2. Play stupid games, win stupid prizes.

        Maybe I’m just jaded but it’s an even more obvious two-step than that, IMO. Just as cookie cutter as any born-again singer, turned pop-princess, turned slutty diva.

        Carry around unlicensed weapon, sell drugs, sing about shooting people, show up to parties where people get shot, get arrested and charged for having an unlicensed weapon, selling drugs, maybe even shooting someone, do time, or not, make millions singing about how the cop who stopped you for doing 55 in a 54 was racially profiling you.

        Obligatory.

    4. Right, so let’s throw Eric Clapton and a whole bunch of others in jail for cop killing.

      If the best evidence they got is lyrics, they got nothing.

      1. It is not conclusive. It could be that I was just making things up in the songs. But it also could be that I was describing my life or my fantasy life I later decided to live out. Which it is, is up to the jury to decide.

        Did you not see this sentence or somehow not understand what it means? If not, then you statement qualifies as completely idiotic. I said the exact opposite of what you are claiming I said. Seriously, WTF is wrong with you? It is that hard to understand a simple argument? That hard for you to be honest?

        1. Dude loves nothing more than lighting himself on fire

        2. Personally, I don’t like the use of “confessions” not made in open court in any case.

          If the prosecutors don’t think they can get a conviction without using the lyrics as “confession” argument, they don’t deserve to get the case in front of a jury.

  3. >>Juries generally don’t possess a deep understanding of rap’s history, use of figurative language, hyperbole, and wordplay.

    no but they generally can figure out a murder confession even w/a back beat.

    1. And if there is context and history that needs to be explained, isn’t that a defense attorney’s job to do that? Is rap a black thing such that crackers on juries just will never understand?

      1. You’re just too white to understand, John. Some concepts are only absorbed through melanin.

        1. It is also the job of the defense attorney to try and make sure the jury isn’t biased against him.

  4. Snoop, Dre, NWA? Is this article from 1995?

    1. Ice Cube
      When Will They Shoot

      I fn love that song

  5. Absent other evidence, a piece of art (be it a song, a novel, a movie, a painting, whatever) obviously can’t prove a murder attempt†.

    But if I’m not sure it’s any worse then other hearsay used to establish mens rea or motivations/intent.

    The only real question, to me, is whether it can be used as the basis for a crime on it’s own, as in the “terroristic threat” case. In cases like that though, I think that’s precisely why we have juries, to separate the genuine threats from someone just being an angry young man.

    Or to put it in other words… if a person would have a reasonable “feared for my life” claim if they shot you while you were saying/doing whatever it is directly in front of them, you shouldn’t be surprised if they try to take action to make sure you can’t.
    ________
    †”Other evidence” might, of course, include “this painting of the defendant murdering the deceased is made with the deceased’s blood, your honor!”

    1. It clearly can’t be used as a basis for a crime on its own. That would be a violation of the 1st Amendment. But, as far as I can tell that isn’t what is going on here. What is going on here is the government used the defendant’s own statements as proof of his intent to commit the crime. And that is perfectly fine. The fact that it is a rap song doesn’t change that.

      1. The problem I see is considering lyrics as statements of intent. Lots of people write lyrics about killing people and never kill anyone.

        I don’t even think it’s a first amendment issue. It’s just not evidence of anything. If police want to use it as a lead for an investigation, fine. But seems inappropriate for court. To me. I’ll acknowledge that as far as I know it may well be legally admissible under current precedent.

        1. The problem I see is considering lyrics as statements of intent. Lots of people write lyrics about killing people and never kill anyone.

          No one is considering it anything. You would admit that it is possible that it is a statement of intent wouldn’t you? Whether it really is or not is up to the jury to decide. Again, we are talking about admitting it not what conclusion should be made based upon it.

        2. The problem I see is considering lyrics as statements of intent.

          I think I’m comfortable with leaving it to a jury to decide if, when considered in context of other evidence, a piece of art informs them regarding motivation/intent/etc.

          1. I guess I’m feeling pretty cynical about the decision making abilities of a random group of citizens at the moment.

            1. Juries are the foundation of our criminal justice system. If that’s your point of contention, I think you have a way bigger problem then violent rap lyrics.

              1. Juries can’t be counted on to make rational decisions and are easily manipulated by skilled attorneys. If you committed a crime that evokes strong emotions or are factually innocent, you’re better off going for a bench trial, especially if understanding your defense requires complex reasoning. If you’re guilty and your lawyer has good performance skills, a jury is the better bet.

                1. Thank you, Vernon Depner, for illustrating my point, and giving one such “bigger problem” you might have if you’re skeptical of juries.

                  1. You mean the “bigger problem” of actually being guilty? Yeah, a jury can save you in that situation, if your attorneys have the skillz.

        3. The problem I see is considering lyrics as statements of intent.

          Well, they might be that in some circumstances. They can also provide information as to knowledge about a crime, motivation for a crime, preoccupations, membership in particular organizations, etc.

          Lyrics should certainly be admissible if the prosecutor can make a reasonable argument that they are relevant for one of those reasons.

    2. Absent other evidence, a piece of art (be it a song, a novel, a movie, a painting, whatever) obviously can’t prove a murder attempt.

      Uh… there was a body, it was a murder, not an attempted murder. That, IMO, is the issue here and is very much in contrast to the dipshits trying to get Trump for saying he could grab someone by the pussy or shoot someone on 5th Avenue. Speech isn’t the crime and they aren’t convicting him on making rap.

      You might have a better case pointing to say… a painting of Bill Clinton in a blue dress but, even then, a dead body in Federal custody is still pretty damning.

      1. Genuine curiosity… what part of my general non-specific post led you to believe I was commenting about any specific case?

        1. So, you didn’t commit a mistake and, instead, are going with the narrative that when you made a reference to ‘*the* “terroristic threat” case’ you were just being non-specific? OK.

          Going with your narrative, for clarification, did you mean to exonerate *only* *attempted* murderers in a general non-specific way or all crimes?

          1. So, you didn’t commit a mistake and, instead, are going with the narrative that when you made a reference to ‘*the* “terroristic threat” case’ you were just being non-specific?

            Yes. To differentiate from cases of actual crime, where the lyrics are being used to establish mens rea but are not of-themselves a crime, and cases where the speech is the crime, such as Jamal Knox’s terroristic threat case.

            Going with your narrative, for clarification, did you mean to exonerate *only* *attempted* murderers in a general non-specific way or all crimes?

            What an odd-ball question.

            I was very clear: lyrics and other artistic works can be used to establish motivation/intent, or more generally speaking, mens rea. Whether any given accused will be exonerated, or not, is up to the jury and whether they find the evidence (including the evidence to the accused’s character and such) convincing.

            Similarly, I said that the job of sifting actual threats from “just saying stuff” threats is the job of a jury.

            In no case did I try to exonerate (or for that matter, convict) anyone.

        2. The part you do get right is the focus on Jamal Knox. That sounds more like an anti-libertarian civil-rights violation case. Too bad Reason chose to highlight this case over that one in their usual quest to find ‘victims’ who are indefensible and portray them as nearly indefensible.

    3. I’m half-remembering a homicide case in which the prosecution was able to show that part of the defendant’s elaborate gang tattoo illustrated details of the killing which had not been made public.

  6. If gang members listen to Drakeo and buys his music, does that make Drakeo a gang member?

    That’s like calling Trump a white nationalist because white nationalist like or vote for him.

    1. If Drakeo’s music appeals to gang members because his lyrics and style pay homage to gangsters and emulate them, then that is relevant to establishing his capacity to commit a crime in gangster style.

      1. “”capacity to commit a crime “”

        Every single human has the capacity to do that.

        1. I think maybe he means “proclivity”.

          1. he means “proclivity”.

            Whatever. See thesaurus.com.

            1. I’m proud to say I’ve never used a thesaurus in my life.

        2. No, I don’t think so, and you miss the point if you cut off the last three words of my sentence.

          1. Yeah, he’s misquoting, misportraying, and doing so oxymoronically.

            If Caldwell can rap in a gangster style that white people can have no reasonable or objective conception of, then at least some white people lack the capacity to commit a crime in gangster style. If everyone has the capacity to commit a crime equally, then the style is irrelevant and a jury, even an all-white, non-gangsta rap one, is capable of calling a spade a spade (which they did).

            I’m beginning to believe that the CRA irrevocably fucked up America.

        3. Most people don’t have the capacity to “commit a crime in gangster style” because most people have no idea what “gangster style” is. I certainly don’t. Is there some particular body part you aim for? Do you scrawl a message in lipstick on the body? What?

          1. You’re so white.

          2. You hold the gun sideways.
            It is known

  7. Not that the prosecution of some thuglife rapper shouldn’t make its slot somewhere in the news, but could Reason go through the new environmental regulatory overhaul Trump just announced? I’d like to hear your analysis of it.

    To me, even though it was couched in public infrastructure spending, the whole thing still sounded more deregulatory than anything else.

  8. In one of the most notorious cases in arson history, an arson investigator in Pasadena wrote a novel about an investigator who set fires and appeared at the site during the blazes as investigator to see the victims roasted alive. His conviction was based on the congruency between the facts and what he wrote in his novel. Freedom of speech includes the freedom to hang yourself by glorying in your crimes.

  9. John Orr, this doofus did write a novel allegedly detailing his own crimes, but I’m pretty sure he was was convicted with forensic evidence, the manuscript for his book was found after his arrest and probably had little if anything to do with his conviction.

    1. Woops that was in reply to librich

  10. “I think many people find it difficult to imagine that these young men are doing something complex, sophisticated that could be considered literary, artistic,” Nielson told Reason. “It’s much easier to say, ‘Oh, they’re just rapping about their lives.'”

    The implicit assumption there is that if they were “considered literate, artistic”, prosecutors wouldn’t be using them. That assumption is wrong.

    Literary, artistic works tell you something about what’s going on in someone’s head, what they know about a particular kind of crime, etc. Of course such works can be relevant to a criminal prosecution and a prosecutor can be justified in using them as part of the prosecution.

    1. It’s like nobody’s ever watched Basic Instinct
      Great film

      1. It’s a terrific neo-noir with plot twists, great acting, memorable locations, and a haunting Jerry Goldsmith score. The kind of movie Hollywood used to be able to make before they lost those skills. It’s weird that it’s remembered only for Sharon Stone’s underwear-less police interview, though that was a nice touch.

  11. Johnny Cash sang, “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.” Lucky for him police weren’t investigating a murder there at the time, or his song would have been taken as a confession.

  12. It is hard to be outraged without more detail. If my friend Bob ends up dead, and the next day I rap, “Yeah I killed that bitch, Bob. Come get me, 5-0,” that seems admissible. If I instead rap, “my gang rules,” not so much. And in the latter case I can certainly argue that I was venting, lying, etc.

  13. “I turned 21 in prison, doing life without parole”
    “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die”

    So Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash were murderers?

    1. Were either of them ever charged with murder?

  14. Perhaps I missed it, but I’m surprised this hasn’t been posted:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=14WE3A0PwVs

Please to post comments