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Murder She Wrote: Tattoos and Rap Lyrics Can Be Used as Evidence in Criminal Proceedings

In Florida, several gang members of the Latin Kings have been arrested for racketeering charges, among others. Within the indictment, 23 members were implicated as being associates of one of the largest and most well-organized gangs set up in the United States. The most powerful evidence being put forth in the case includes tattoos, handshakes, and other gang-related symbols. Is that a violation of the First Amendment right to free speech?

The Court’s View on Tattoos and Rap Lyrics

Tattoos and rap lyrics have come under fire in the last couple of years as these symbols of speech have been brought into criminal proceedings as evidence of wrong-doing. In the most recent case, which evaluated whether the use of tattoos and rap lyrics as evidence was admissible, the court held that there was a distinction between convicting a defendant based on his or her freedom of speech and using the speech as evidentiary support to show intent, motive, or bias.

Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure

Federal rules of criminal procedure help courts evaluate how and when to use evidence in a criminal proceeding. Some evidence that could be proffered may have very little probative value but could be highly prejudicial for the defendant. For example, the fact that a defendant was arrested for stealing from his grandmother does not, in of itself, prove that he murdered his neighbor. The two incidents are unrelated and by sharing the first crime to the jury, there is a risk run that the jury may attempt to punish the defendant further, even if he did not murder the neighbor. Prior bad acts are not considered valuable to show that in this case, the defendant committed the crime.

Tattoos as Evidence

There is an admissibility standard in the federal rules to allow some acts and conduct to be used to prove intent, motive, and/or bias. For example, a court, such as in the case of a gang member who is accused of murdering a member of an enemy gang, could permit the evidentiary use of a tattoo that could show not only allegiance to the one gang, but hatred of the other. The tattoo, in and of itself, does not prove that he committed the crime, but it could help the jury understand whether there is sufficient motive for the defendant to have committed the crime. The distinction is slight but important.

The Latin Kings’ Tattoos as Evidence

Tattoos and rap lyrics and the like are extremely difficult to use as evidentiary support to show that the defendant committed the crime. First Amendment issues make them difficult to use since everything can be manipulated based on subjective views. The Latin Kings, for example, tattoo images of a sacred crown, a lion, or the initials “LK” or “ALK” or “ALKQN”; it is easily conceivable that there are other people who are not members of the Latin Kings who tattoo “LK” as initials for a spouse or child. In addition, though many gang members tattoo their rap and murder sheet on their body with “tear drops”, the evidence may be helpful, but not conclusive.

Rap Lyrics as Evidence

Rap lyrics can also be subjectively interpreted. Bob Marley sang “I Shot the Sheriff” but was not arrested. Generally, cases involving the use of rap lyrics must show that there is a strong nexus between the crime committed and the description provided within the rap lyrics. Describing the intricacies and details of a murder in a rap song could have a more damning effect than merely sketching out the situation where someone was killed, without more detail.

Experienced Criminal Defense Attorney in Fort Lauderdale

It is essential that you speak with an experienced criminal defense attorney like Kevin J. Kulik if you have been arrested for a crime or offense. Contact Kevin J. Kulik today for a free and confidential consultation in the Fort Lauderdale area.

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