Last year, Ronald “Ra Diggs” Herron, a 33-year-old accused New York City gang member, was sentenced to 12 life terms, plus 105 years in prison for a slew of violent crimes, including three murders. Herron was convicted in a trial where prosecutors used his own violent rap lyrics against him.
According to reports, the sentencing came after a jury in June 2014 found Herron guilty of all 23 charges against him, from racketeering to drug trafficking to gang-related killings between 2001 and 2009.
Prosecutors claim that Herron was the hardened leader of the Murderous Mad Dogs (under the Bloods’ umbrella). This dangerous gang is said to be responsible for the killings of three men associated with the drug trade: Frederick Brooks, Richard Russo, Victor Zapata. Herron was tried for Brooks’s 2001 murder, though he was acquitted after two key witnesses refused to testify, apparently because they felt threatened and intimidated. Soon after, Herron was convicted of drug charges and ended up in jail until 2007.
Brooklyn U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch in a statement Thursday said the life sentence would put an end to the “brutal, unrelenting violence” that Herron allegedly committed. “Herron styled himself a rap artist, but the evidence proved that he was a murderous thug who sought power through violence, fear and intimidation,” she said.
Herron’s team tried to keep his work out of the courtroom, arguing that threats such as, “See if he was smart he would’ve shot me in the head / ‘Cause I can get you shot from a hospital bed,” and brags like, “Twice I went head-to-head with [former Brooklyn DA] Charles Hynes’s office and never lost/I’m a boss” — including verses about shooting his enemies — were only a part of a persona, not reality.
Herron’s team painted a picture of him being a small-time drug dealer who left prison and wanted a music career, where he created songs about the violence and crime in his community. “He thought he could be, in a sense, the voice for people in projects where he grew up,” explained attorney James E. Neuman. Or, as Herron claimed during testimony, “I got tired of being a recidivist.”
According to the New York Times Herron has spent only two full years outside of prison since he was first locked up for a robbery he committed at 13. Throughout his life in and out of incarceration, Herron sparked a promising music career, working with hip hop artists like Uncle Murda and Waka Flocka Flame.
When Uncle Murda testified for Herron, he told the court that rappers often exaggerate their lyrics. Not only that, but so do other recording artists. Herron made first-person claims “as if being lived by the defendant,” no different from Johnny Cash’s “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die,” and Bob Marley’s “I shot the sheriff, but I did not shoot the deputy.”
But the rest of the evidence led the jury to use Herron’s artistic expression against him, slapping him with a conviction. This makes you wonder about freedom of speech. Or even something as simple as artistic expression. Having your lyrics be the biggest reason you’re in prison for the rest of your life is disheartening. Our justice system is beginning to frighten us–White police officers kill unarmed Black men and no conviction. A Black man raps about killing someone and he’s sent to prison for life. What is happening in America?