Friday, April 1, 2011

Metal as Evidence in Criminal Trials


Okay, the band mentioned in here is Slipknot. I am not going to get into a big discussion about whether Slipknot is or is not metal, that's not my purpose. Here's the brief rundown. A 17 year old is being charged with murdering his grandparents and then setting their house on fire. The police seized some evidence against the 17 year old including a Slipknot CD.

The report goes on to state in the last paragraph of the article:
He said Smith admitted to investigators when he was arrested that he was into heavy metal music.

The CD was taken as evidence, whether that means that it will be used to possibly establish mens rea or not remains to be seen.

To answer this question, we need to know what "relevant" means. I am licensed to practice in Nebraska, so I will be using Nebraska rules. I would imagine Oklahoma's rules are very similar, if not exactly the same.

In Nebraska, evidence is relevant if it has "any tendency to make the existence of any fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more probable or less probable than it would be without the evidence." That comes from Neb. Rev. Stat. §27-401.

It's quite the mouthful but what it means is that there is a very low standard for determining whether evidence is relevant or not. Basically, if has ANY probative value, it will probably be admitted.

So basically, we are looking at whether listening to Slipknot would have any tendency to cause this young individual to kill his grandparents and burn their house down. To prove this, the prosecutor need only explain some sort of rational connection between the listening to Slipknot and the killing the grandparents. The prosecutor may do this by a relying on experience, logic, intuition, common sense, or even expert testimony. Basically, if he can find an expert willing to testify that violent imagery in music makes it more probable that an impressionable young person would commit a violent act, then he can get the music in to evidence.

Well then we have the issue of how to use this evidence. If the prosecutor were to use this evidence, then he would have to draw some kind of connection between the music and the act. For that, he would probably have to look at the lyrics and pull particular passages and then offer the CD into evidence. If he cannot find any violent lyrics, this probably does not get offered.

Music tastes have been offered in a number of criminal trials before. Look no further than the famous West Memphis Three cases. As much as we metalheads state that our music tastes do not influence our actions, the fact is that it has been used in courts of law to do prove just that. Our musical taste is potentially relevant information. Whether it tells the whole story is a different matter, but it can be used in conjunction with other evidence.


  1. I would argue that the actual psychological value of our music tastes as information in such a case is impossible to determine. Since country CDs (for example) are NOT going to be taken in as evidence in a case like this, we have no measuring stick against which to weigh the validity of metal in leading to violent behavior. It may well be that 20% of murderers favor metal music, while 45% favor country music. The selective nature of the test sample doesn't provide us with any objective means of accurately measuring the correlation.

    It's like deciding to only take hair color into account when determining intelligence if the person in question is blond, rather than first consistently noting hair color to see if a pattern emerges. They're starting with a conclusion and then only considering the details that support that conclusion, rather than starting with information and using that information to reach a conclusion. The whole process is being conducted backwards. I realize that the aims of a lawyer are going to be biased in favor of a particular outcome, but from a psychological standpoint the methodology is extremely unsound.

  2. I am certainly not arguing that it is not flawed to consider musical tastes when prosecuting an individual for a crime. My point was merely to show how that evidence gets in. The defense counsel is obviously going to attempt to argue against it with whatever information is available. But ultimately, I think that the musical taste gets in if it is even somewhat relevant to the case at hand. If the person were listening to violent rap albums, it would probably get in as well.

    As a lawyer, it is my job to lay the groundwork for the conclusion I want the fact-finder to reach. I realize that this is backwards (my undergrad degree is in Psychology), but that's how we do things.

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  4. Well I'm not in a position to speak to the legal end of things. Just wanted to throw my two cents in on the topic in more general terms.

  5. Certainly not a problem. I appreciate the feedback.

  6. I don't think it gets in. I think they'd be really stretching to argue it is relevant in the first place. As you said, it's going to take expert testimony to prove the relevance of the evidence in the first place. How many courts are going to be willing to go through that circus for some kind of tenuous connection? Especially in this case, considering the band has sold 14 million records, you'd think there'd be more murders connected to it.

    Second, I think it gets excluded anyway on the basis of being unfairly prejudicial, i.e., its probative value is outweighed by its prejudicial effect. The fact is people don't like metal and they are suspicious of those who do, and the "expert" isn't going to make a very strong argument for its relevance.

    Now on the other hand, there could be a passing reference to finding the CD as part of the general practice of allowing the parties to let the evidence tell a story, unless the defense makes a motion to exclude it beforehand. Lots of irrelevant stuff gets in this way because it paints a fuller picture.

    The analysis for the drawing is going to be similar, unless there's something specific in it that bears on the crime at issue.

    As a side note, there's no way there was a pentagram on a Slipknot CD. It would be a 9 pointed star. And if that's the most dangerous-looking CD they found, this kid's listening habits aren't that far out of the norm for a teenager.

  7. I don't know how prejudicial a CD is going to be, I guess it depends on the community. If this were in a small town in Utah where religious conservatism is high, then possibly. I certainly do not think it gets in by itself. It would be considered along with everything else and I am not sure the prosecution would push for its inclusion if they have to go a long way toward proving its relevance. But, if that was the only shot they had, they might consider it.