Court overturns San Bernardino murder conviction, saying rap music shown at trial was prejudicial

By:  Jory Rand

For the first time under a new California law, a murder conviction has been overturned by a court that said a rap video should not have been admitted as evidence at trial.

A state appellate court overturned the San Bernardino man’s conviction saying the video that was presented at his trial was prejudicial.

It was the first decision of its kind under a new California rap music law that took effect this year.

Last week, the murder conviction of Travon Venable Sr. was overturned by a California appeals court due to a new state law that took effect on Jan. 1.

The law states that forms of creative expression like rap videos or lyrics cannot be used as evidence without serious consideration by a judge because they introduce racial stereotypes and bias, and unfair prejudice.

The state Legislature made this change, the appeals court writes, to address the problem of introducing racial stereotypes and bias into criminal proceedings by allowing rap lyrics into evidence. “(A) substantial body of research shows a significant risk of unfair prejudice when rap lyrics are introduced into evidence.”

Venable was convicted 5 years ago of being the driver in a deadly 2019 drive-by shooting in San Bernardino. He had an alibi that placed him at home. A witness who placed him at the shooting gave a long list of conflicting stories.

But three times, the prosecution played a rap video in which Venable appeared in the background with a gun. He never said a word, but a line in the song appeared to reference the drive-by.

“There’s no question,” the appeals court writes, “the trial judge’s admission of the rap evidence in this case did not comply with the new requirements for admission of creative expression. There’s also substantial concern that admitting the evidence may have had the precise effects the Legislature sought to avoid.”

They continue, “Most of the people who appear in the video are young Black men. Venable appeared in the video, but he didn’t say anything. … Nothing in the song indicates the rapper or others in the video had personal knowledge or involvement in the shooting, only that they had heard about it. The prosecution nevertheless placed a lot of emphasis on the video.”

“…we conclude the admission of the rap video without the new safeguards was prejudicial to Venable. .. The prosecution’s emphasis of the rap video at various points in the trial, including in closing arguments, likely had an effect on the outcome.”

The case will likely be sent back to the trial court in about a month, and the district attorney’s office will decide whether to seek a new trial.

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