By David Brand
A federal court of appeals upheld the conviction of a Brooklyn gang leader who ruled the drug trade at two Brooklyn public housing projects and who prosecutors say described real-life murders in his rap lyrics on Friday.
Ronald “Ra Diggs” Herron appealed his conviction on the grounds that his “music and promotional videos related to his rap music career were erroneously admitted into evidence.” Federal prosecutors used the lyrics to bolster the case against Herron, who was charged with murdering several rivals in the Wyckoff and Gowanus Houses and ruling the drug trade from the late-90s until 2011.
Though the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit acknowledged that the First Amendment “limits the government's ability to regulate the content of speech,” the court cited case law and said the Constitution does not "prohibit the evidentiary use of speech to establish the elements of a crime or to prove motive or intent."
Herron boasted about murders and drug deals in lyrics and music videos, including in the Waka Flocka Flame song “Live by the Gun,” on which Herron has a featured verse.
“Ask my n---- Uncle when I murder with the chopper/N--- shot me five times, two days later, the n---- died. N---- shooting at the five is committing a suicide,” Herron rapped, according to lyrics annotated on the site GenIus.com.
Herron was convicted of murder, weapons possession, racketeering, robbery and drug offenses connected to his leadership of “Murderous Mad Dogs Bloods" gang in April 2015 after a five-week jury trial. He was sentenced to life in prison and is incarcerated at a supermax penitentiary in Colorado, according to court documents.
“The videos — offered as evidence of Herron's participation in the charged conspiracies and crimes, his position as a leader of the MMDB, his familiarity with firearms and the drug trade, and his relationship to certain cooperating witnesses — are plainly relevant,” the Court of Appeals determined. “The district court balanced the risk of prejudice from the profanity and offensive conduct in the videos against their probative value in concluding that Rule 403 did not bar their admission into evidence.”
Herron partnered with the successful Brooklyn rapper Uncle Murda — whose real name is Leonard Grant — on a number of songs.
Grant testified that rappers frequently exaggerate their activities in their lyrics. As an example, Grant said told prosecutors during cross-examination that he once rapped about refusing medical attention after getting shot in the head, though in reality, he visited a doctor for treatment.
In 2014, the ACLU counted 18 cases that similarly consider rap lyrics against people charged with crimes, The Observer reported. In 80 percent of those cases, prosecutors presented the lyrics as evidence in court, NPR found.
Herron also appealed his conviction on the grounds that he was denied the right to provide witnesses who would testify in his favor, that the court presented cell-site evidence his attorney had tried to suppress and that his convictions were “improperly considered crimes of violence."
The court denied said each argument was “without merit.”