A federal racketeering case is currently proceeding in Brooklyn against an alleged drug gang and the U.S. District Attorney prosecuting the case asked the judge to admit mafia tattoos into evidence, as well as to admit YouTube music videos that were made by the alleged gang leader. The Brooklyn judge ruled that the videos were admissible and could be used against the defendants. As the New York Daily News reports, this decision is part of a growing body of cases in which judges admit videos into evidence in which defendants rap about criminal activities.
In deciding to admit the evidence, the judge indicted that the videos “depicting the defendants with firearms, cash and drugs are highly probative to the weans-related charges, narcotics trafficking and money-laundering charges.” The problem, of course, is that these videos may be stylized or dramatized depictions and do not necessarily reflect the reality of the defendants’ behavior. Admitting videos that could be considered art and that are a form of free expression by the defendants has troubling connotations for free speech.
Should Entertainment Videos be Admissible in a Criminal Trial?
The defendants who are on trial for drug charges argue that the entertainment videos that were made were fictionalized dramatizations and were characteristic of the Gangsta Rap genre.
With popular culture that regularly glorifies violent or illegal behavior in movies, television shows and music, it is reasonable to believe that many people may make videos or post pictures on social media pages that appear to depict criminal behavior. The idea that these entertainment videos could be used as evidence to secure criminal convictions could stifle speech and restrict art. There is also no reason to suggest that a depiction of potential criminal behavior in a photo or video means actual crimes were committed. Musicians and actors could become concerned about having videos displayed out-of-context that are prejudicial in a criminal case.
The judge stated that the defendants can introduce evidence during the trial that the drugs, money, and weapons depicted in their music videos are simply props and are not reflective of actual criminal acts. The jury will be left to weigh the evidence in order to make a determination regarding whether the videos should actually serve as useful evidence to consider in the racketeering case. Of course, such videos are inherently likely to prejudice a jury against a defendant and it can be difficult to separate fact from fiction when the videos may be one of the few glimpses that the jury gets into who the defendants actually are or how they behave.
This recent case allowing the admission of the videos as evidence in a federal racketeering trial is not the first. In 2014, a judge in Brooklyn also allowed YouTube videos to be introduced into evidence that seemed to glorify violence and drug dealing. In that trial, the defendant was convicted and sentenced to serve three life sentences as well as 105 years in prison. It is difficult to know the extent of the impact that the video had on the jury’s decision to convict the defendant.
Although this trend is troubling, it is unlikely to end any time soon. With the rise of the Internet, any information that you put out into the public sphere could potentially come back to be used against you if you are accused of criminal behavior. You need an experienced and skilled New York City criminal defense lawyer who can make a convincing argument to keep potentially prejudicial evidence from being used against you and who can help to make a compelling argument to the jury that the evidence the prosecutor has should not be enough to convict.