Did rap video keep alleged Burlington shooter behind bars?

Published: Jan. 11, 2023 at 5:26 PM EST
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Is artistic expression being protected by the First Amendment when it comes to rap lyrics? According to CBS News lyrics have been used in more than 500 cases against artists since 1991. Reporter Ike Bendavid found out music videos are being played in courtrooms in Vermont, too.

It was New Year’s Eve 2021 and just moments before midnight when a family fight inside a St. Louis Street home ended in gunfire. Burlington Police say the dispute over a gun prompted 20-year-old Bonide Badibanga to fire several rounds, injuring his brother. Several days later, Badibanga turned himself in to the police.

“What happened on New Year’s Eve was a person being struck. That was an attempted murder,” Burlington Police Acting Chief Jon Murad said following the arrest.

The aspiring rap artist has a criminal history including assault and weapons-related charges from when he was a juvenile and a judge ordered him to be held without bail for attempted murder.

At a court hearing a month later, Badibanga’s long-time friend and manager, Silas Goldman, asked Judge Gregory Rainville if Badibanga could be released on conditions into his custody. “I would say my relationship to him is a friend first and all the music stuff is after,” Goldman said.

But Chittenden County Deputy State’s Attorney Sally Adams objected to Goldman’s fitness as a “responsible adult.” She played a music video from Badibanga called “On Me” which depicts Badibanga and others dressed in camo and carrying guns in the woods. Goldman also makes a cameo.

Goldman argues that the meaning of the song has little in common with the images in the video. He says the guns were not real and that it’s a parody of Vermont’s hunting tradition, something new Americans like Badibanga don’t normally participate in. “It’s based off of a video game that he played growing up,” he said. “Just like having the video be like -- we are inside of that video game - hunting stuff... it’s just sort of like fun ideas that are made into real-life events.”

Reporter Ike Bendavid: Was that music video intended to be violent in any way?

Silas Goldman: Not at all. Zero. No one ever thought anything of violence.

Judge Rainville decided to keep Badibanga behind bars, saying that while Goldman was “well-intentioned” he was not a responsible adult. The judge cited Goldman’s appearance in the video, calling it “troubling” for glorifying violence.

Goldman disagrees, saying the video should be considered art, not evidence. “They used that music video and my association with the song, creation of the video, as a reason to not release him to live with me,” he said.

The Chittenden County State’s Attorney’s office declined requests for an interview but did release a statement saying the reason for showing the video was to establish that Goldman does not meet the criteria for being a responsible adult and that the lyrics and video have nothing to do with the defendant’s guilt or innocence in the criminal case.

But legal experts say the tactic has been used in courts across the country, particularly in cases where a defendant is a person of color. “One of the underlying concerns here is that we are talking about rap lyrics and we are obviously still very involved in a national conversation about racial equity,” Jared Carter, a professor at the Vermont Law School.

“The community that has been targeted is Black artists, Black rappers,” said New York Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz, who is the sponsor of a bill that would protect artists from having their art used against them in New York’s courts. It’s modeled after a recently enacted law in California. “What we are doing is shifting the burden onto the district attorney, the prosecuting authority, to prove that these lyrics have something to do with the crime that the person or the artist is being accused of. So, they would have to prove that there is an actual nexus between the specific words and the specific act that took place in order for them to use it.”

Carter says there is a fine line in court when it comes to protected speech. “I’m not saying outside statements can’t be used in a criminal proceeding, but when you are taking artistic expression and using that by implication as evidence of guilt of some crime, that’s a real concern. The reason the 1st Amendment protects artistic expression is because we want that vibrancy and artistic expression because it’s figurative, it’s not literal,” he said.

That legislation in New York is expected to move forward later this session. As for Badibanga -- he remains in prison awaiting a possible trial on the attempted murder charge.

Related Story:

Burlington man charged with attempted murder in New Year’s Eve shooting