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Texas murder conviction that used rap videos as evidence overturned

The civil trial over a 2019 crane collapse in Dallas took place over the course of nearly two weeks in April 2023 at the Dallas County Court at Law No. 2.
Toluwani Osibamowo
The civil trial over a 2019 crane collapse in Dallas took place over the course of nearly two weeks in April 2023 at the Dallas County Court at Law No. 2.

The state's highest criminal court on Wednesday overturned the capital murder conviction of a Greenville man after judges ruled prosecutors improperly used rap videos he posted on social media to impeach his testimony.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled it was prejudicial for state prosecutors to use videos of 33-year-old Larry Jean Hart rapping about selling drugs and other illegal activity under the rap name “Block Da Foo Foo” in order to challenge his testimony that he was a “friendly person" and had comprehension issues that made him unaware of the crime.

“Holding song lyrics to their literal meaning would lead to the following conclusions: Freddie Mercury ‘killed a man,’ Bob Marley ‘shot the sheriff,’ Macy Gray ‘committed murder and … got away,’ the band formerly known as The Dixie Chicks killed Earl, and classically, Johnny Cash ‘shot a man just to watch him die,’” the court’s opinion reads. “These are conclusions we cannot accept outside of some other evidence demonstrating the lyrics are something more than fiction.”

Hart was convicted in 2019 for the capital murder of Michael Gardner while committing burglary two years prior. According to court documents, Hart drove someone he said he only knew as “Mondo” or “Little Partner” and three — possibly four — other people he didn’t know to Gardner’s apartment complex. He testified the others went into Gardner’s apartment, shot the man in the head and stole some of his things.

Hart testified Mondo said Gardner was his uncle and he planned to break into his uncle’s house, but Hart said he didn’t believe Mondo would actually do that.

Hart also said he considered himself a “friendly person,” which is why he gave the others a ride, but he did not know why they were making the trip. He also testified he’s had issues with comprehension and expressing himself since he was in school. A forensic psychiatrist found Hart competent but "opined that he had a ‘below average’ IQ,” which the jury was not told.

The state showed the jury Hart’s rap videos in which he lip-synced a song making references to “weapons, cough syrup, and being a ‘trap king.’” Hart said those lyrics were written by another rapper and denied owning guns or posing with real cough syrup in the video.

Hart also posted lyrics from Lil Wayne, NBA YoungBoy and Gucci Mane on Facebook, which the state argued referenced guns and was evidence of his cognitive abilities.

A Dallas appeals court upheld Hart's conviction in 2022. But the court ruled “any probative value of the rap videos and lyrics was outweighed by the overwhelming potential for prejudice and confusing the issues.”

Hart’s attorneys could not immediately be reached for comment. The Dallas County District Attorney's office declined to comment.

In his concurring opinion, Judge Richardson cited several other song lyrics across genres he said could be used as evidence of crime under the state’s reasoning.

“I shot the sheriff, but I didn’t shoot the deputy” from Bob Marley and the Wailers’ 1973 song “I Shot the Sheriff” could mean aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

“So lay your cards down, down, down. So park your Lexus. And throw your keys up” from Beyonce’s “Texas Hold ‘Em” could constitute aggravated robbery.

“I eat boys up, breakfast and lunch. Then when I’m thirsty, I drink their blood” from Kesha’s “Cannibal” could be interpreted as abuse of a corpse.

“Singing these songs, either as the artist or just while driving one’s car to work, does not make one more or less likely to be a criminal,” Richardson wrote. “Such music merely serves as an expressive outlet to millions of law-abiding Americans—though many will strongly disagree on what is tasteful and what is not.”

Got a tip? Email Toluwani Osibamowo at tosibamowo@kera.org. You can follow Toluwani on X @tosibamowo.

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Copyright 2024 KERA

Toluwani Osibamowo