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IF YOU’RE INVOLVED IN A HOMICIDE, DON’T UPLOAD A RAP VIDEO TO YouTube SUGGESTING YOU MIGHT HAVE DONE IT

The PA Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Talbert, No. 719 EDA 2015 (December 22, 2015), holding that it was not improper for the trial court to permit the introduction of a rap music video by the Commonwealth to corroborate the Defendant’s role as one of the shooters through the use of his own words in the rap song.

FACTS

On March 12, 2012, at approximately 8:00 p.m., Philadelphia police responded to a call reporting gunshots. Upon arrival, they found two victims at North 9th Street and Indiana Street, in a neighborhood that is part of the 25th District. Both victims were shot more than a dozen times. Stokely suffered at least 15 gunshots to the legs. The cartridge casings recovered at the scene included almost two dozen casings consistent with cartridges that would be used in an AK-47 assault rifle, as well as several casings that would be used in a 9-millimeter handgun. Additionally, a surveillance video confirmed that the escape vehicle driven by the shooters was a van.

Eyewitnesses identified Talbert and Christopher Lloyd Butler (“Butler”) as the shooters.

On April 23, 2012, Talbert uploaded a rap music video to YouTube, which the Commonwealth argued contained lyrics that described a crime similar to the murders at issue in this case. In the video, Talbert rapped the following lyrics:

Running and running the Badlands like an Afghan
Choppers on deck, slide up in the caravan
Hit up ya legs, turn that nigga into half a man
Things get hot and I slide down to Maryland
Where a nigga get a bean for half a grand.

Steven Sturgis (“Sturgis”) helped Talbert record the rap song at issue over the beat of Meek Mill’s “Lean Wit It.” Sturgis testified that, to his knowledge, the new lyrics were Talbert’s own lyrics, and that he had either previously written them or rapped them freestyle in the studio.

The Commonwealth introduced the music video to corroborate Talbert’s role as one of the shooters through the use of his own words in the rap song.

After considering the testimony provided at trial, the trial court concluded that the portion of the lyrics of the rap song introduced at trial made particular references to the murders of Bowie and Stokely. Specifically, the trial court determined that the term “Badlands” is often used to refer to the neighborhood in Philadelphia where the murders occurred. The trial court also found that the term “chopper” is a term used to refer to a gun. The trial court further construed the term “caravan” to be a reference to the escape vehicle used by Talbert and Butler. Additionally, the trial court determined that the phrases “hit up ya legs” and “half a man” describes the injuries sustained by the victims, one of whom was shot 15 times in the legs.

After an initial hung jury and following a second jury trial in November 2014, Talbert was acquitted of possessing instruments of crime, and convicted of two counts each of murder of the first degree and conspiracy. On January 30, 2015, the trial court sentenced Talbert to concurrent terms of life in prison for the murder convictions and 20-40 years in prison for the conspiracy convictions.

Talbert appealed, raising a number of issues, one of which was the propriety of allowing the introduction of the Talbert rap video.

ISSUE

Whether it was proper for the trial court to introduce the music video to corroborate Talbert’s role as one of the shooters through the use of his own words in the rap song.

HOLDING

Given the significant relevance of the rap video and the trial court’s cautionary jury instruction, the rap video was properly admitted, despite the potentially prejudicial impact of artistic works.

REASONING

The Superior Court’s reasoning is summarized as follows:

Talbert contends that the trial court misconstrued the meaning of the “slang” words used in the lyrics; therefore, it was impossible to conclude that the rap specifically referred to the murders in question. Talbert asserts that the video was irrelevant and unfairly prejudicial, and that its admission into evidence entitles him to a new trial.

Relevance is the threshold for admissibility of evidence. Evidence is relevant if it has any tendency to make a fact more or less probable than it would be without the evidence, and the fact is of consequence in determining the action. The court may exclude relevant evidence if its probative value is outweighed by a danger of unfair prejudice.

Although Talbert suggests that there are inconsistencies between the facts of the crime and the common slang meaning of the words in the rap song, we conclude that these inconsistencies are not significant enough to change the overall meaning of the rap lyrics. Referencing a neighborhood within the city of Philadelphia is not so general that the incident at issue could not properly be associated with the term “the Badlands,” which is the neighborhood where the murders did, in fact, occur. The reference to the plural “choppers,” rather than to a singular “chopper,” is also not so transformative that a listener would not understand the general idea that the rap was meant to convey. While Talbert seems to suggest that the term “chopper” can only refer to an AK-47 assault rifle, Strugis testified that the term can be used in reference to any kind of gun. Moreover, the use of the term “caravan,” as opposed to the specific model name of Talbert’s own vehicle, is an insignificant difference in the context of the entire rap song. Additionally, despite the fact that Sturgis had never heard the phrase “half a man” used to refer to a dead man, the phrase could reasonably be referring to the injuries sustained by the victims.

The Superior Court concluded that to expect rap lyrics, which are a form of artistic expression, to communicate a criminal event in precise detail would be wholly unreasonable.

Furthermore, while the admission of Talbert’s rap music video certainly could have been harmful, there is no evidence to suggest that any resulting prejudice so inflamed the jury as to create a risk that the jury would convict on other factors.

Given the significant relevance of the rap video and the trial court’s cautionary jury instruction, the rap video was properly admitted, despite the potentially prejudicial impact of artistic works.

http://www.pacourts.us/assets/opinions/Superior/out/J-S63034-15o.pdf?cb=2

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