NEW YORK (AP) — A reputed street gang leader sought to convince a New York City jury on Thursday that amateur music videos featuring him rhyming about carrying guns and spilling the blood of rivals were pure fiction.
Taking the witness stand in his own defense at a murder trial in federal court in Brooklyn, Ronald Herron testified that he decided to leave his life of crime and pursue a hip hop career using the name "Ra Diggs" in 2007 after serving a six-year prison term for drug dealing.
"I spent a lot of time in isolation," Herron testified. "I went through a whole retrospective process. I changed radically."
Herron, 32, described seeking out the guidance of a music promoter who suggested he use subject matter from his experiences growing up as the son of a crack addict father and shoplifter mother in a drug-plagued housing project in Brooklyn. He testified those experiences included becoming a crack dealer and armed robber as a teenager, joining the Bloods in a youth detention facility and surviving a shooting when he was back on the street.
The defendant claimed the lyrics from one of his videos seen by the jury — "See if he was smart he would've shot me in the head / 'Cause I can get you shot from a hospital bed" — were a reference to the person who shot him. But he insisted he never actually took revenge on anyone, calling the lines "exaggeration" and "hyberbole."
During their case, prosecutors also played a clip they argued is proof of payback in the 2009 shooting and wounding of one Herron's top lieutenants, nicknamed Moose. Herron was filmed visiting Moose at the hospital and saying, "See you at a cemetery near you, man" — what the government alleges was a warning to the assailant Herron later tracked down and killed.
On Thursday, Herron denied killing anyone. The cemetery comment, he testified, "was just ad-libbing. ...I wasn't directing it at anyone in particular."
Before trial, the defense had argued that his recordings were constitutionally protected free speech that should be off-limits. But the judge ruled that the recordings were relevant because they establish Herron's identity as the leader of a Bloods faction called the Murderous Mad Dogs.
The case is the latest battleground in the debate over whether rap lyrics constitute criminal evidence. The American Civil Liberties Union has said that in 18 cases nationwide in which courts considered rap music evidence, they were admitted about 80 percent of the time.
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