When Rap Lyrics Become Evidence

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Like many artists of his genre, East Baltimore rapper Young Moose uses his lyrics and music videos to depict the harsh reality of his surroundings, with images of men flashing guns, drugs and cash.

But as his career seemed to be taking off this summer, with an opening slot for an arena show by a popular national artist beckoning, a city detective was working to turn the budding performer's YouTube videos against him.

After police say they found dozens of heroin gel caps in his family's home, Det. Daniel Hersl noted those videos in charging documents, writing that Young Moose "raps about distributing narcotics, violence and using a firearm to commit violence."

That's how Young Moose real name Kevron Evans became the latest rapper to find his creative work used against him.

The phenomenon is on the rise nationwide, as authorities mine art for use in court. Questions about the practice reached the New Jersey Supreme Court this year.

Some raise concerns about bias. Charis E. Kubrin, a professor of criminology, law and society at the University of California, Irvine, said authorities take rappers' lyrics more literally than they do the work of other musicians and artists.

"The lyrics are indicative of nothing," Kubrin said. She said an affluent director whose movies contain violence and drugs would be unlikely to be subjected to a police raid.

But D. Watkins, an adjunct professor at Coppin State University who writes about life in Baltimore's toughest areas, said local rappers' references are often authentic and a chief obstacle to being successful.

"In Baltimore, a lot of rappers are living their raps, to the point where the stuff they talk about becomes even more important than the art itself," he said. He was not speaking to Evans' guilt or innocence in the drug case.

Prosecutors across the country have cited lyrics and videos made by defendants to aid their cases, while defense lawyers have argued that the material should not be used as evidence.

Police in Newport News, Va., last year charged Antwain Steward stage name: Twain Gotti in a 2007 double homicide after coming across a track that appeared to describe the killings. The rapper was acquitted of murder this year but convicted of a gun offense.

A review by the American Civil Liberties Union found that judges have generally allowed prosecutors to use lyrics at trial.

A federal judge allowed prosecutors in New York to use lyrics against Ronell Wilson in the 2003 murder of two undercover detectives. Investigators believed one set described the incident itself, while others showed the rapper's gang ties.

Wilson was sentenced to death, won an appeal of his sentence, and sent back to death row in 2013.

But last month, the New Jersey Supreme Court upheld a ruling overturning Vonte Skinner's conviction for attempted murder on the grounds that his lyrics should not have been used as evidence in his trial.

Justice Jaynee LaVecchia wrote that Skinner's "violent, profane, and disturbing rap lyrics" constituted "highly prejudicial evidence" that "bore little or no probative value as to any motive or intent behind the attempted murder."

In Baltimore, authorities began to build their case against Evans as he was preparing to open for the Louisiana rapper Lil' Boosie at the Baltimore arena. Now, his attorney and other supporters say the timing of the charges was intended to prevent the 21-year-old from performing.

"Right now, he's at what we call the tipping point of his career," said Tony Austin, a former Def Jam executive who signed Evans to his record label. "It's messing up his career, but really, it could destroy his career."

Police and prosecutors did not respond to requests for comment.

Richard C. B. Woods, Evans' lawyer, wrote in a court filing that Hersl had been harassing Evans since Evans pleaded guilty to a pair of drug charges this May. Woods wrote that Hersl taunted Evans in the street and took money from his pockets.

"In addition, Detective Hersl repeatedly voiced his intense dislike of numerous music videos starring Kevron that had been posted to YouTube," Woods wrote. A judge gave police a warrant to search Evans' home after Hersl described videos in which Evans and his friends brandished guns.

Hersl said a confidential informant reported buying drugs from Evans and his father at Evans' house, according to the search warrant application. The raid on July 25 turned up 160 gel caps of heroin, cutting agents and packaging material, police said.

Evans was not home at the time, but he was arrested three days before the Boosie concert. Woods rushed to Central Booking in the early hours of the morning to bail him out. But after the bond was posted and Evans was scheduled to be released, police served a warrant for violation of probation, sending him straight back to jail.

In an emergency filing seeking a hearing to get Evans released, Woods said the arrest was timed to prevent Evans playing the Boosie show.

"Detective Hersl simply wants to prevent Kevron from his first major concert appearance," Woods wrote. "The court should not give Detective Hersl the satisfaction of achieving his goal."

The judge denied the request without holding a hearing. The arena show went on without him, and Evans remains in custody pending a hearing scheduled for next month.

Hersl and Evans' relationship dates to at least October 2012, when Hersl filed cocaine charges against Evans.

Hersl wrote in charging documents that he "knows Evans from seeing him in the area on a daily basis and also knows him to go by the street name of Loose Tooth." On that day, Hersl wrote, he saw Evans reaching into his waistband for red and white packages of cocaine and dealing the drug to customers.

Detectives arrested Evans and he later pleaded guilty to conspiring to possess drugs with the intent to distribute them.

If police have it in for Evans, as his supporters suggest, the feeling is mutual. "F--- da Police," one of Moose's songs, has a refrain of "They keep [messing] with us, yeah they keep harassing, they keep on [messing] with us, they trying to stop us from trapping" slang for dealing drugs. A featured rapper on the track curses a police lieutenant in the Southern District by name.

In an interview posted online, Evans said his music reflects his life growing up in East Baltimore. A close friend was murdered in 2008, he said, and he started rapping when his grandmother was killed. He has produced a series of mix tapes titled, "Out the Mud," which he describes as a reflection of his struggle to escape poverty.

He raps about being arrested on marijuana charges at age 12. "I was raised around it," he says in a song in which he also discusses being held at a juvenile detention facility.

Watkins, of Coppin State, notes that underground rappers in Chicago have been playing up that city's violent reputation, waving automatic weapons in music videos and embracing the "Chiraq" nickname. One of the biggest rappers to emerge from that scene, Chief Keef, has been in and out of jail as his stock has climbed.

David Manigault, a director from Baltimore who is now based in Los Angeles, said there can be a thin line between art and reality. He said a mainstream rap artist will often use prop weapons and have set consultants to add authenticity, but musicians starting out go a more authentic route.

In one song, Evans raps: "I always keep my gun on the side of me. I ain't worried about the judge throwin' five at me," a reference to the state's mandatory minimum sentence. Evans has never faced a criminal charge of violence, and his attorney said the guns in the video are merely props.

Austin said Evans is simply rapping about what he knows.

"When you see things going on, and God gave you a gift to put it into storytelling, what's the problem with that?" he said.

Young Moose has more than 12,000 followers on Instagram, and his YouTube videos count more than 620,000 views. The song, "Posted," which opens with Evans holding a firearm and slipping around a street corner, has 130,000 of those views. Another song, "Dumb Dumb," has been gaining popularity.

Austin signed Evans last year after hearing about him from his son and other young relatives.

"I started asking people in different neighborhoods, and everybody was saying, 'Young Moose is the one, he resonates with what's going on today,'" Austin said. "The kid really has a great fan base," Manigault said. "He's a great entertainer. He's a smart guy; he's humble."

Austin said Evans is being held in jail at a time when he could be fielding offers from major labels. Since his arrest, Evans' fans have started a #freeyoungmoose campaign on Twitter and Instagram.

Evans was scheduled to play another show last Saturday at Pimlico race course, a tribute to Michael Brown, the teenager shot by police in Ferguson, Mo. For all the support, he didn't make it. - BaltimoreSun.com - Justin Fenton and Ian Duncan

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