In a 2-1 decision, the Nevada Supreme Court upheld the first-degree murder conviction of Deyundrea “Khali” Holmes. He had appealed his conviction because the original trial judge had deemed admissible lyrics written while he was awaiting extradition for the murder of a drug dealer, Kevin “Mo” Nelson.
His appeal was predicated on the theory that “features of ‘Drug Deala’ are so clichéd that they do not distinguish the robbery his lyrics describe from other rapped-about, garden-variety robberies.” The Court disagreed, saying that “[t]he lyrics’ lack of originality may reduce but does not eliminate their probative value.”
On the night of the robbery in 2003, Holmes and his accomplice, Max Reed, lured Nelson to the parking lot of a recording studio in order to steal drugs and money from him. When Nelson arrived, the pair donned ski masks and attacked him. During the ensuing struggle, Nelson was able to stash his money and drugs in his car, so Holmes and Reed “bunny-eared” his pockets — meaning they turned them inside out — and yanked off his gold chain. At this point, one of them said “I’m going to shoot this f***ing guy,” then did. Nelson quickly died. No arrests were made.
In 2008, Holmes was identified as one of the assailants when DNA he submitted to a parole office in California matched the DNA found on a cigarette butt at the scene. While awaiting extradition to Nevada, he wrote 18 songs. One of which, “Drug Deala,” was used as evidence against him:
I catching slipping at the club and jack you for your necklace.
F**k parking lot pimping. Man I’m parking lot jacking.
Running through your pockets with uh ski mask on straight laughing.
During the trial, Holmes’s attorney argued that the lyrics should not be admitted on the grounds that they are unoriginal and clichéd. Justice Nancy Saitta echoed this argument in her dissenting opinion, writing that “[v]iolent imagery finds its way into lyrics because that is what the audience craves and the industry rewards, not necessarily because the artist has a propensity to engage in the acts depicted.” Moreover, “the lyrics are not sufficiently specific as to suggest that the description contained therein was that of the charged crime.” She goes on to argue that the lyrics only depict the robbery, not the murder, and therefore could only be proof that Holmes committed the former. The lyrics, she concludes, merely reference “routine criminal behavior,” and their admission unfairly prejudiced the jury against Holmes.
In upholding the conviction, Chief Justice Kris Pickering and Justice James Hardesty disagreed. They acknowledged “that admitting gangsta rap carries the risk of it being misunderstood or misused as criminal propensity or ‘bad act’ evidence [because the] defendant-authored rap lyrics may employ metaphor, exaggeration, and other artistic devices.” However, they concluded that the specificity of the lyrics rendered them admissible, as opposed to cases in which “lyrics discussing murder with firearm [are deemed] probative to a trial for murder conducted with a meat fork.”
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Scott Eric Kaufman is the proprietor of the AV Club's Internet Film School and, in addition to Raw Story, also writes for Lawyers, Guns & Money. He earned a Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of California, Irvine in 2008.
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