Search
Search type

School of Arts, Languages and Cultures

Expert testimony leads to fairer trials

A University of Manchester academic has become the first UK 'expert witness' of rap lyrics in UK murder cases.

Dr Eithne Quinn
Dr Eithne Quinn

A University of Manchester academic has become the first UK 'expert witness' of rap lyrics in UK murder cases.

When gangsta rap lyrics were presented by prosecution counsels as evidence of intent to commit violence, defence teams approached Dr Eithne Quinn, a rap expert and author of the book, 'Nuthin' But a 'G' Thang: The Culture and Commerce of Gangsta Rap' (Columbia University Press, 2005).

They asked her to explain why some young men write violent rap lyrics and what they mean.

Eithne has now acted as expert in three murder trials, as well as other cases. Criminal barristers who have worked with her say that defendants have received fairer trials thanks to her testimony.
In several cases the Crown contended that the first-person character in the gangsta rap verse written by defendants should be taken at face value – as an autobiographical statement. They contended that the rap lyrics were 'blueprints' for violence.

But Eithne rebutted that the defendants were mimicking the verse form of famous rap stars. In her monograph she had explored the use of the persona device in gangsta rap. The first-person perspective helps establish all-important street credibility. So she finds it worrying that gangsta rap lyrics are being increasingly taken literally by the prosecution in serious criminal cases.

Eithne said: "The outlandish personas they adopt draw on narrative traditions of boasting in black folklore. Due to the huge commercial popularity of gangsta rap, they have become very formulaic. Usually, young men write these rhymes in the hope of becoming successful rap artists or to entertain their peers.

"Sadly, judges and juries, who aren't familiar with the music, may easily conflate rapper and persona."

"Sadly, judges and juries, who aren't familiar with the music, may easily conflate rapper and persona."

Dr Eithne Quinn / Rap expert and author of 'Nuthin' But a 'G' Thang: The Culture and Commerce of Gangsta Rap

In one 2010 murder case in which Eithne acted as expert, the judge agreed to exclude the violent rap lyrics from the case, ruling that the lyrics were more prejudicial than probative.
Though each case is different, Eithne believes that the use in prosecution cases of such lyrics is often prejudicial – in both a legal and a racial sense. All of the defendants in the cases in which she has testified have been black.

In one 2013 "gangbo"-type case in which she was instructed, the defendants faced a custodial sentence for breaching an injunction that banned them from performing their own music.

Discover more

 

Prosecuting Rap

Dr Quinn has co-developed a Prosecuting Rap network of UK and US scholars and lawyers in order to promote dialogue on issues around race, culture and criminal justice. The network came together for an international workshop in Manchester in 2015.