The Caged Bird’s Song
In State v. Atkinson, a precedential opinion issued on November 5, 2009, the Minnesota Supreme Court upheld a district court’s admission into evidence of a defendant’s original rap lyrics – which he had hand written while in custody in a Ramsey County jail awaiting his trial.
Entitled “An Official Jip Diss”, the lyrics contained various phrases that could be construed as threats of violence against “snitches”, and contained indirect references to two of the State’s eye-witnesses in the case.
Until Atkinson, Minnesota law regarding threats made by a defendant against witnesses in a case was summarized in the opinion of State v. Mayhorn from 2006, which said, “threats made by a defendant against a witness may be relevant to show consciousness of guilt.” A statement is considered a threat if it contains specific and legitimate information regarding harming someone. As relevant evidence is admissible in a trial, Mayhorn stood for the principle that threats made by the defendant to a witness in the case could be admitted against him or her at trial as an indication of guilt.
In Atkinson, the Minnesota Supreme Court addressed for the first time the question of “whether threats made against, but not communicated or intended to be communicated to, a witness show consciousness of guilt.”
The court rationalized its ruling in favor of admitting non-communicated threats as follows: “[T]he fact that the threat was not communicated or intended to be communicated, however, does not by itself mean that the maker of the threat is any less conscious of guilt that one who intends to communicate the threat or otherwise take some action on the threat. Consciousness of guilt is a state of mind.”
The defense had argued that admitting the lyrics was a mistake because any value they might have had was outweighed by how prejudicial their admission was, and that they weren’t relevant because they were part of the defendant’s personal belongings and were never communicated to anyone, let alone to the witnesses themselves.
The Supreme Court didn’t buy it. The lesson from Atkinson is this: Defendants should be careful at every stage of their cases – from pre-arrest interviews to their time in custody awaiting trial – to not talk about any aspect of their cases to anyone, even to themselves in writing, because anything they say or write could become admissible against them in trial.
You can read the full opinion at: