Prejudicial or Valuable Evidence? A Look into the Work of Rap Expert Charis Kubrin
by Annie Curie, CJRC Undergraduate Intern
A common tenet in legally-themed television shows such as “Law and Order” is how ardently one must avoid the use of circumstantial evidence in a trial. But what happens when that evidence is comprised of rap lyrics written by the defendant? Should the judge and the jury consider such writings art or evidence? And if it is evidence, is it circumstantial or probative? These questions and more were answered by guest lecturer Dr. Charis Kubrin on September 25, 2014, when she paid a visit to the Criminal Justice Research Center. Currently a faculty member at the University of California, Irvine, Dr. Kubrin specializes in criminology, law, and society. Her current work and a book project, co-authored with Dr. Erik Nielson (University of Richmond), have both focused heavily on the use of rap lyrics in criminal trials of young African American men. This work began in the early 2000s as a research topic for several papers based on content analysis of four hundred rap songs, but it was brought to the forefront of Dr. Kubrin’s career years later when she received a phone call from a District Attorney requesting her assistance as an expert trial witness. Dr. Kubrin has since branched out from the world of academia to the court room, where she has testified numerous times as a rap expert, and has even presented a TEDx Talk on the matter.
On the day of her presentation at Ohio State, I had the opportunity to speak briefly with Dr. Kubrin. When asked why she pursued this niche research interest, she responded that she became “intellectually curious” about the difference between claims being made about rap and the substantial data collected on the matter. Rap lyrics serve as a readily available source of circumstantial evidence for prosecutors to use when framing the narrative surrounding the defendant. While Dr. Kubrin argues that such evidence should be inadmissible in court if it does not provide more probative value than its prejudicial impact on the jury, judges will often allow such evidence into their cases regardless. By providing rap lyrics that are often violent, as is the nature of most work created by aspiring “gangsta” rappers, the prosecutors persuade the juries of the defendant's violent nature with ease. During her work with defendants, Dr. Kubrin often will first file pre-trial motions to exclude the rap lyrics from the evidence by assisting the judge in understanding why such evidence should not be accepted. If they choose to admit it, however, Dr. Kubrin will testify to the nature of the rap lyrics.
One argument against use of rap lyrics in prosecution of defendants is that minority males are disproportionately targeted with said evidence. While other forms of art are often considered art for arts’ own sake, rap lyrics are typically perceived as autobiographical rather than artistic. For this reason, when lyrics are given as evidence in a trial, the defendant is painted to the jury as violent, and thus is considered guilty even if there is a lack of other evidence. Many of these men pen the sort of lyrics they do because they see this as the only way to gain success in the competitive industry. With violent lyrics, prosecutors can sway the juries on cases ranging from threats of violence to homicide convictions, even without other credible evidence to justify said convictions.
This talk comes at an appropriate time, as America currently is facing a nationwide dialogue regarding minority men singled out by the justice system. As the CJRC continues to address issues such as racialized justice, the nation must also examine issues of racialization in other judicial systems. It is Dr. Kubrin’s aim to advocate just hearings through raising awareness about what should and should not be heard by the courts. She will continue to do so with opinion articles, lectures, and Amicus Briefs along with continued academic research.
Adam Jones and Gendered Genocide: The Controversy Regarding Massacring Male Victims
by Annie Curie, CJRC Undergraduate Intern
Genocide is often captured in the media as an evil that affects the vulnerable members of a society, people displaced and murdered in bouts of senseless violence. The images of these vulnerable people are usually women, children, and the elderly, yet recent events and key research have shown that these are not the only groups vulnerable to such violence. October 8th, 2014 brought yet another riveting guest presentation in the Criminal Justice Research Center as Dr. Adam Jones, Professor of Political Science at the University of British Columbia Okanagan, came to present "Gendering Genocide" to a diverse audience of scholars and students. The aim of Dr. Jones’ research is to illuminate the ways in which men and boys of fighting age can also be slaughtered during genocidal warfare.
Dr. Jones’ fierce interest in this subject originated when he was a child, when he became aware of human rights issues due to learning about the Holocaust. In the 1980’s, he went to Central America to do humanitarian work, leading him to learn further about ethnic warfare. During his research on places such as the Balkans, East Timor, and Rwanda, Dr. Jones recognized a notable pattern in the response of governments and NGOs when dealing with genocide. Namely, the safety of women, children, and the elderly was placed above the needs of men and boys.
Dr. Jones began warning of the dangers of ignoring men in genocidal situations with his 1994 Ethnic and Racial Studies article “Gender and Ethnic Conflict in Ex-Yugoslavia.” Often in genocide, men and boys are killed while women are sexually victimized by the genocidal actors. Thus, the gendered approach to genocide has traditionally focused on the devastating effects on women as a result of this process. Dr. Jones does not research this topic as a means to provide a false sense of security for female victims of genocide, nor does he intend to dispel the understanding of how women are harmed by these attacks. Rather, his research aims to provide men and boys with a voice in international mediation that can protect them from slaughter. In his talk, Dr. Jones discussed the 1995 massacre of over several thousand men and boys in Srebrenica during the Bosnian War. During the conflict, Bosnian Muslims were targeted by Bosnian Serbs in an ethnically driven gain for territory. Foreign and United Nations forces rescued women and children, yet left behind all the men of fighting age, who were therefore considered to be a physical threat and were ultimately massacred. Though this was the group that was abandoned, it was also the group of people that is inherently most vulnerable to such mass killing during ethnic conflict. Dr. Jones argues that the United Nations had every reason to anticipate this outcome, yet even with this knowledge they did not prevent it.
By examining the disparate outcomes for males, Dr. Jones hopes to address structural and institutional failures in the ways that international groups address genocide.
Thanks to Drs. Charis Kubrin and Adam Jones, and to all of you who sent your suggestions and announcements. We encourage you to keep us informed about any events that might be of interest to CJRC participants as well as any suggestions that you have for activities or programs.