Montague v. State

Decision Date23 December 2020
Docket NumberNo. 75, Sept. Term, 2019,75, Sept. Term, 2019
Citation471 Md. 657,243 A.3d 546
Parties Lawrence Ervin MONTAGUE v. STATE of Maryland
CourtCourt of Special Appeals of Maryland

Argued by Ryan J. Travers, Assigned Public Defender (Donald P. Salzman, Assigned Public Defender, of Washington, DC; Paul B. DeWolfe, Public Defender of Maryland of Baltimore, MD) on brief for Petitioner.

Argued by Peter R. Naugle, Assistant Attorney General (Brian E. Frosh, Attorney General of Maryland of Baltimore, MD) on brief for Respondent.

Argued Before: Barbera, C.J., McDonald, Watts, Hotten, Getty, Booth, Biran, JJ.

Getty, J.

In the early 1970s, a multicultural clash of musical influences in the Bronx, New York, spawned a revolutionary genre of music. What began as disc jockeys, like DJ Kool Herc, incorporating spoken verses into elements of Jamaican dance hall, funk, soul, and disco at local parties, initially evolved into "hip-hop" and then became the ubiquitous beat of rap music that is widely disseminated in the United States and world-wide. Over the past five decades, featuring artists such as Run-D.M.C., 2Pac, and Drake, rap music has been closely interwoven with all aspects of American culture. "More than simply entertainment," rap music "is a major part of contemporary identity circuits" and reflects "trends, ideals, [and] conditions in society."1

Accordingly, rap music often influences the behavior of a large segment of society. Relevant to this case, the interconnected relationship between contemporary culture and rap music is illustrated by rap's reinforcement of a "street code." A prevalent feature of this "street code" is that the use of violence is central to retaining respect and enforcing social norms.2 As a result of this interconnected relationship, understanding the "street code" contained in rap music is often essential to understanding "the principles governing ... interpersonal public behavior."3

This case is about the admissibility of jailhouse rap lyrics composed by Lawrence Montague as substantive evidence that he shot and killed George Forrester. In the early morning hours of January 16, 2017, Mr. Forrester was shot and killed by a drug dealer after he attempted to purchase cocaine using a counterfeit $100 bill. Mr. Forrester's cousin, Tracy Tasker, accompanied him to purchase the drugs and, after witnessing the shooting, fled in Mr. Forrester's vehicle. Ms. Tasker was later arrested for unrelated warrants and identified Mr. Montague as the shooter. Mr. Montague was later indicted for Mr. Forrester's murder.

Three weeks before trial, while incarcerated in the Anne Arundel County Detention Center, Mr. Montague made a telephone call to an unidentified male using another inmate's personal identification number passcode. Mr. Montague requested that the unidentified male record his rap, which included lyrics that matched the details of Mr. Forrester's murder. The rap lyrics also made references to shooting "snitches" and the recording was subsequently uploaded on Instagram. The State sought to introduce the recorded telephone call containing the rap lyrics as substantive evidence of Mr. Montague's guilt, and Mr. Montague moved in limine to exclude the recording. The circuit court admitted the rap lyrics and, on appeal, the Court of Special Appeals agreed that the lyrics are admissible under Maryland Rules 5-401, 5-402, and 5-403.

We also agree. We hold that Mr. Montague's rap lyrics are relevant under Rule 5-401, and therefore admissible under Rule 5-402, because they make it more probable that Mr. Montague shot and killed Mr. Forrester. The rap lyrics bear a close factual and temporal nexus to the details of Mr. Forrester's murder, and that nexus is strengthened by Mr. Montague's use of "snitch" references to potentially intimidate witnesses. As a result of this close nexus, we also hold that the trial judge did not abuse his discretion in admitting the rap lyrics under Rule 5-403. We therefore affirm the judgment of the Court of Special Appeals.

BACKGROUND
A. The Shooting.

In the early morning hours of January 16, 2017, George Forrester and his cousin, Tracy Tasker, drove to the Woodside Gardens apartment complex in Annapolis to find a drug dealer. Upon arrival, Mr. Forrester pulled his Ford Explorer sport utility vehicle ("SUV") into a parking spot facing 708 Newtowne Drive ("708 Newtowne"). While Ms. Tasker remained in the SUV, Mr. Forrester exited the vehicle to look for a drug dealer. When he saw someone at the back of the parking lot, he walked that way and attempted to purchase cocaine. That attempted drug transaction was unsuccessful.

Mr. Forrester then walked from the back of the parking lot towards a second individual who was standing on the sidewalk between the SUV and 708 Newtowne. After a short verbal exchange with Mr. Forrester, that individual ascended the stairs to an apartment on the second floor of 708 Newtowne. He returned about two minutes later and gave a quantity of drugs to Mr. Forrester. However, according to Ms. Tasker, the $100 bill that Mr. Forrester used to pay for the cocaine was counterfeit.

The drug dealer quickly realized that the bill was counterfeit and pursued Mr. Forrester from 708 Newtowne to the SUV. Sensing his approach, Mr. Forrester moved towards the SUV's driver-side door but did not open it or enter the SUV. Instead, he walked past the SUV further into the parking lot where the drug dealer, standing on the sidewalk in front of the SUV, confronted him and exclaimed: "[G]oddamn, give me my shit, man."

The drug dealer then raised a firearm and shot Mr. Forrester in the back. Ms. Tasker was attempting to exit the vehicle as this situation unfolded and watched the drug dealer as he fired his weapon. When the drug dealer noticed that Ms. Tasker was in the passenger seat of the SUV, he turned and fled in the direction behind 708 Newtowne. Ms. Tasker exited the SUV, attempted to render aid to Mr. Forrester, and took his pulse. When the security employees of the apartment complex arrived, Ms. Tasker also fled the scene by driving away in Mr. Forrester's vehicle because she had open warrants for her arrest and did not want to be there when law enforcement officers arrived.

Officer Brittany Artigues was the first officer of the Annapolis Police Department to arrive at the crime scene. She began performing lifesaving procedures on Mr. Forrester until paramedics arrived. At trial, Officer Artigues testified that paramedics from the Annapolis Fire Department arrived and, shortly thereafter, she "saw that [Mr. Forrester] left in the ambulance." She then canvassed the scene and located two .40-caliber shell casings and one spent bullet.

Officer Thomas arrived on scene at about 5:00 a.m. to assist with the crime scene investigation.4 Officer Thomas marked and photographed one .40-caliber shell casing on the sidewalk in front of 708 Newtowne, another on the parking lot next to the curb, and a spent bullet nearby. Officer Joseph Mann and Sergeant Jessica Kirschner, among other officers, canvassed the apartment complex for witnesses but had a difficult time gathering information because residents were generally uncooperative.

Shortly after arriving at the Anne Arundel Medical Center, Mr. Forrester was pronounced deceased from the injuries caused by the gunshot.

B. The Investigation and Arrest of Mr. Montague.

Two days after the shooting, on January 18, 2017, Annapolis police officers arrested Ms. Tasker for her outstanding warrants, and she was interviewed by Detective Charles Bealefeld. Ms. Tasker admitted that she was the person sitting in the passenger seat of Mr. Forrester's SUV when the drug exchange occurred. She added that she turned and "saw the guy" who raised his firearm and shot Mr. Forrester. Detective Bealefeld displayed photographs from several individual manila folders of potential suspects. Ms. Tasker quickly identified Lawrence Montague's photograph as that of the drug dealer who shot Mr. Forrester. She affirmed that she was "[a]bsolutely positive" that Mr. Montague was the shooter because she knew him from two previous encounters where she had bought drugs from him.

About two weeks after the interview of Ms. Tasker, officers arrested Mr. Montague at a motel near Annapolis and, on February 24, 2017, he was indicted for the murder of Mr. Forrester.

At trial, Ms. Tasker testified that she encountered Mr. Montague while they were both incarcerated at the Jennifer Road Detention Center ("Jennifer Road"). Ms. Tasker was housed in the Jennifer Road medical unit for a short period of time and, while waiting for her medicine in the hallway of the unit, Mr. Montague came through the hallway in a wheelchair. When Mr. Montague recognized Ms. Tasker, he looked directly at her and called her a "f----n’ rat." Ms. Tasker did not notify anyone at the detention center of this encounter, and Mr. Montague was subsequently transferred to the Anne Arundel County Detention Center.

C. The Rap Lyrics.

Three weeks before trial, on October 7, 2017, Mr. Montague made a telephone call from the Anne Arundel County Detention Center using another inmate's personal identification number ("PIN") passcode for telephone calls.5 During this telephone call, Mr. Montague spoke with an unidentified male and made several statements in the form of an amateur rap that he composed while incarcerated and awaiting trial.

Mr. Montague requested that the unidentified male record his rap lyrics. The unidentified male responded: "I'm ready to record you ... it's going on my Instagram so you're on live with me right now."

After the unidentified male stated that he was ready to record, Mr. Montague rapped:

Listen, I said YSK / I ain't never scared / I always let it spray /
And, if a n---a ever play / Treat his head like a target / You know he's dead today / I'm on his ass like a Navy Seal /
Man, my n----s we ain't never squeal /
I'll pop your top like an orange peel / You know I'm from the streets /
F.T.G. / You know the gutter in
...

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