Posted on February 24, 2023

California’s New ‘Rap Music’ Law Helps Overturn 2018 Murder Conviction

Joe Nelson, San Bernardino Times, February 23, 2023

A state appellate court has reversed a San Bernardino gang member’s murder conviction stemming from a 2014 drive-by shooting, ruling that a rap video he appeared in was prejudicial and should not have been admitted as evidence at his trial.

It is the first criminal conviction in California to be overturned under a new law requiring judges to weigh more carefully “forms of creative expression” — explicitly rap videos and lyrics — that could be racially biased and prejudicial against defendants before admitting them as evidence at trial, said Jacquelyn Rodriguez, a spokesperson for the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office.

Travon Rashad Venable Sr., 34, of San Bernardino was convicted in 2018 and sentenced to 129 years to life in prison in connection with the fatal shooting of Enon Damon Edwards, 20, and the wounding of another man in a drive-by shooting at Medical Center Drive and Union Street in San Bernardino on March 5, 2014.

Venable was the alleged driver of the white Kia used in the killing. Under a plea agreement, co-defendant Elgin Johnson, 28, the alleged shooter, pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in December 2019, and was sentenced to 22 years in prison, court records show.


“The potential impact of this decision, if it stands, is that it would likely raise a new avenue for convictions to be challenged,” Rodriguez said in an email Tuesday, Feb 21. {snip}

Defense attorney James Gass, who represented Venable, said in a telephone interview that the prosecution’s case relied heavily on the rap video evidence.

Initially, a witness who had been a police informant came forward in 2014 and identified Venable and Johnson as the perpetrators. Police presented that evidence to prosecutors, who declined to file charges. The case languished for two years, until investigators discovered the video and felt they had their clincher, Gass said.


The law that took effect in January, Assembly Bill 2799, added a new section to the Evidence Code requiring trial judges to consider specific factors before admitting evidence of a form of creative expression in a criminal proceeding. The amendment was designed to avoid injecting racial bias and improper consideration of criminal propensity at trial.

When the judge presiding over Venable’s trial allowed the video evidence in, it illustrated everything the new law was tailored to prevent, according to the opinion handed down on Friday, Feb. 17, by the three-justice panel of the Fourth District Court of Appeals in Riverside.

“There’s no question the trial judge’s admission of the rap evidence in this case did not comply with the new requirements for admission of creative expression. {snip}” Justice Marsha Slough said in the 20-page opinion, in which Justices Manuel Ramirez and Frank Menetrez concurred.


While Venable’s conviction was reportedly the first in California to be reversed under AB 2799, a Contra Costa County judge in October ordered a new trial for two men charged with murder, citing violation of the state’s Racial Justice Act of 2020.

Judge Clare Maier cited the use of the n-word by the prosecutor, defense attorneys and a police gang expert when quoting rap lyrics by the defendants, Gary Bryant Jr. and Diallo Jackson. Prosecutors argued that the lyrics showed the defendants’ gang ties and helped to discredit Bryant’s claims the killing was an act of self-defense.

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