Rhyme & Punishment: Bay Area court weighing if use of rap lyrics in murder trial is racially biased

Bay Area man hopes CA's new Racial Justice Act could lead to new trial after his rap lyrics were used in 2014 murder conviction
ANTIOCH, Calif. (KGO) -- A Contra Costa County Superior Court judge on Friday heard what legal experts believe is an important test of a new California law meant to eliminate racial bias in criminal cases.

Attorneys argued that the use of a Pittsburg man's rap lyrics in a murder trial was racially biased and the defendant should be granted a new trial under the California Racial Justice Act of 2020.

"We're not asking for someone to get away with murder. We're asking for a new trial, a fair trial without racial bias and prejudice," said Evan Kuluk, deputy public defender in the Contra Costa County Alternate Defender Office.

Superior Court Judge Claire Maier is expected to weigh whether racial bias influenced the 2015 murder conviction and life sentence of Gary Bryant Jr.

Kuluk is representing Bryant.

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The ACLU of Northern California believes this is the first test of the Racial Justice Act. The act was passed by state lawmaker in September 2020, following the murder of George Floyd and nationwide calls for criminal justice reform.

The family says Bryant was a barber and rapper.

Videos of Bryant's music from 2013 are still on YouTube and feature the typical hallmarks of rap music: making money, partying, and being self-made despite a hard upbringing. The lyrics are brimmed with aggressive bravado Bryant's attorneys argue are art and should not be taken literally.

"Visions sitting low in the coupe ... Then I cook cream get money roll up a few ... Backwoods, good kush count up my loot," Bryant raps in one song.

Bryant was tried and convicted for a deadly 2014 Antioch apartment complex shooting where he was also injured.

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His attorneys are now arguing the use of Bryant's music during the trial to allegedly paint him as a violent man with gang affiliation was racially biased.

"Black music is treated differently. The presentation to the jury of lyrics from my client's rap music as literal confessions to crime was not based in reality, but based in stereotyping," said Kuluk.

Kuluk cited the Racial Justice Act as grounds for granting a new trial.

The act prohibits the state from seeking a criminal conviction or sentence on the basis of race, ethnicity, or national origin.

"It enables, let's say in a criminal case, a defendant to raise a claim that there is racial bias," said LaDoris Cordell, retired Santa Clara County Superior Court judge.

Cordell called the use of rap lyrics in criminal proceedings against Black men "rhyme and punishment" where the lyrics are on trial instead of the person.

"This rhyme and punishment approach is used almost exclusively against Black defendants. So it's basically a stereotype if you're a rapper, and you're saying this, well, that must mean you're doing all of this stuff. It's (also about the) interpretation of what those lyrics mean," she added.

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According to court documents, prosecutors used Bryant's lyrics to secure gang enhancement charges by connecting him with the Broad Day Gang and extend his sentence.

Bryant's mother tells ABC7 News he was never in a gang and she wants to hug her son again.

"The industry uses violence to promote their business," said Denise Holdman-Griffin. "Gary is not a violent person. I'm hoping that my son can come home."

The Judge continued the ruling and has yet to decide whether Bryant will be granted a new trial.

The ACLU is closely watching the case and supporting the public defender to help bring attention to the Racial Justice Act to ensure it is implemented.

"This is the first case to make it to the point where a judge will examine whether evidence at a trial was so infected by racial bias that the criminal defendant deserves a new trial," said Chessie Thacher, ACLU senior staff attorney.

ABC7 News reached out to the Contra Costa County District Attorney's Office for comment. A spokesman for the DA's office said it would not comment on pending proceedings.

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