Are the Gang Experts Conflating Rap and Hip-Hop Culture with Being a Gang Member?
Two weeks ago we had an article on the problematic nature of expert testimony by the gang expert in the case of Michael Romero. For the last few weeks we have seen the testimony of the plaintiff’s gang experts in the Gang Injunction Trial. First, Joe Villanueva took the stand as an expert. Detective Villanueva currently works on the City of Fairfield gang unit, but up until the end of 2007 headed the Yolo County Gang Unit. This week, the current head of the gang unit, Sgt. Jason Winger, has taken the stand in the gang injunction case. One of the big questions is the nature of expert testimony. Expert witnesses are allowed to render opinions. In this case, both experts have rendered opinions about whether an individual is or is not a gang member. Their expertise is based both on formal training and street experience, but at the same time we have seen some of the limits of their knowledge and, as importantly, the inability to put the information gathered on the streets into proper context. This latter problem is particularly true for Sgt. Winger, as we have seen this week under direct examination from Deputy DA Jay Linden.
Much of this week, Sgt. Winger has gone through name by name, explaining why each individual listed is a gang member. Two points that Sgt. Winger made stand out. First, at one point, he was asked to read from “documents” found on the scene at the home of one purported gang member, Manuel Guzman. He read from this “document” and it became very clear that Sgt. Winger was reading from rap lyrics. Taken out of context this would be very damning, as it made reference to killing and the gang life, with specific references to West Sacramento, Broderick and the like. The problem, as one of the defense attorneys objected, is that this appears to be gangster rap lyrics. As such, the lyrics are not shocking but rather quite typical of a genre of music that regularly makes reference to, and even glorifies, the gang life and culture. Does that make Mr. Guzman a gang member? Only if you believe that all rap stars are gang members. And the “totality of the circumstances” argument could fall well short here, as certainly many established and aspiring rap stars have lyrics like these and items in their home that could be interpreted as gang “indicia.”
The problem is that you have middle-aged individuals, most of them white, trying to make sense out of a culture that they have never been a part of and likely do not understand. Lacking that understanding, one can misinterpret one’s clues. And yet this is an expert witness, but it seems possible that he has never listened to rap music in his life. Certainly, he has little understanding of a popular Hip-Hop culture and subculture that have come to glorify the “gangsta” lifestyle, and have incorporated and even co-opted gang symbols and slogans. This point comes out again with Carlos Guzman, who purportedly has a tattoo across his chest with the writing, “Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop.” According to the expert Sgt. Winger, that is a gang saying pertaining specifically to the Norteno gang, which stands for can’t stop the gang life and won’t stop the gang life. Sounds convincing right? Now Google the term and you find out something very interesting. First of all, no reference to gangs in the first several pages. Instead you find a number of songs by the name, including one by Lindsey Lohan. We also know that title is an influential book on the Hip Hop industry by Jeff Chang. So is this a gang slogan, or just a pop culture reference? Does Sgt. Winger even know? This gets to the very point, he may know a bit about gang members, but he seems to lack a broader perspective that would enable him to perhaps properly identify what he is seeing and put it into context.
Rap music may be popular among gang members, but it is also popular among non-gang members. Rap lyrics often depict fictionalized accounts that glorify the gang life. Popular rap musicians may rap about killing people, but that does not mean that they have killed people or even desire to kill people. Unfortunately, we have a group of people who probably have little exposure to or understanding of such culture, and who are in charge of this case. They may know the law, but the key question that the Judge in this case has to look at is the facts of this case, and that is based not just on the law but also the evidence, and it is contingent upon her ability to weigh that evidence. When you have a gang expert who may lack the perspective to place evidence into proper perspective, that creates a problem…By David Greenwald, Oct. 2010, for the From Yolo County Judicial Watch (full article at http://davisvanguard.com)