Michigan Court Reverses Murder Conviction, Cites Rap Videos

WWJ News
January 25, 2020 - 4:41 pm
Jamal Bennett

Jamal Bennett (Photo: Michigan Department of Corrections/2017)


DETROIT (WWJ/AP) - The Michigan Supreme Court has thrown out a murder conviction, saying YouTube rap videos spoiled the verdict by portraying the defendant as a "ruthless and menacing threat."

Jamal Bennett is serving a 32-year prison sentence for the fatal shooting of another man during a fight at a party in Grand Rapids in 2013.

At trial, the jury saw two rap videos in which Bennett and others rap about drinking, smoking, guns, shootings and sex. The prosecutor said in closing arguments that the videos were evidence showing the "shoot first, ask questions later" mentality of Bennett, then 18, and his friends and the "lifestyle" they lived. 

Bennett said he was trying to defend himself and others when the shooting occurred, claiming the victim was beating one of his friends. At trial in 2015, he was found guilty of second-degree murder and was sentenced to 32-102 years in prison. He appealed the conviction, with attorneys arguing that the court never should have allowed the videos as evidence

The Michigan Court of Appeals twice upheld Bennett's murder conviction. Even though the court agreed the "unfairly prejudicial" music videos should not have been shown to the jury, it ruled a new trial wasn't warranted due to the overwhelming amount of other evidence against Bennett, including testimony from multiple witnesses who claimed they saw the shooting. 

The Supreme Court disagreed and reversed the Court of Appeals judgment, saying the rap videos unfairly tainted the jury.

Click here to read the Supreme Court's opinion (.pdf format)

"Defendant has sustained his burden of showing that, viewing the trial as a whole, admission of the rap videos undermined the reliability of the verdict. These videos portrayed defendant as a ruthless and menacing threat to the community who would shoot upon the least provocation," the judges said in their order. "The prosecutor relied heavily upon the videos to establish defendant’s state-of-mind...replaying clips of them and drawing comparisons between the lyrics of songs in the videos and the shooting. Finally, the trial court’s instruction to the jury that it could rely upon the videos in assessing defendant's motive and intent may well have exacerbated the prejudice caused by admission of the videos."

The case has been remanded to the Kent Circuit Court for further proceedings. 

Bennett will be returned to the Kent County Jail to await his next trial date. Although this conviction has been vacated, Bennet will not be released from custody as he is still serving an 8- to 20-year sentence for perjury for lying to police during the initial investigation in this case.