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Judge denies New York murder suspect's plea to ban rap lyric evidence

By Curtis Skinner

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A New York City murder suspect has lost his bid to have boastful rap lyrics he wrote about being in a violent street gang excluded as evidence at his trial.

U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis denied the motion by Ronald "Ra Diggs" Herron, who faces 23 counts of murder, drug trafficking, racketeering and other charges, on Thursday in Brooklyn federal court.

Prosecutors' plan to use Herron's "gangsta rap" videos - in which he can be heard boasting about belonging to a Brooklyn chapter of the infamous Bloods street gang, firing weapons and dealing drugs - has stirred debate over free speech protection.

Herron "is free to argue that the videos were designed as entertainment and are the result of creative license," the judge wrote in his ruling. "The decision of whether to credit that evidence rests with the jury."

The judge said prosecutors must specify which video excerpts they will use, and why, before he will allow it into evidence.

Prosecutors contend the lyrics are "documentary-style" evidence of his crimes.

Herron's lawyers argued in court documents that the lyrics were not autobiographical but were commentary on crime, violence and drug wars in the inner city.

Herron is accused of three gang-related killings in New York's Brooklyn borough between 2001 and 2009. He was indicted in 2012.

The American Civil Liberties Union has argued that judges should consider the constitutional protection of freedom of speech when weighing the value of evidence.

The ACLU said there are about 18 cases nationwide in which rap lyrics have been introduced to help convict defendants. A similar case is pending before New Jersey's top court.

(Reporting by Curtis Skinner; Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Grant McCool)

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