A Santa Maria jury deliberated four hours before throwing out charges that the diminutive Orcutt rapper, Anthony Murillo — who performs under the name “Lil A” — threatened two teen sexual assault victims with the words of his song, “Moment for Life Remix,” which he posted on song-sharing website ReverbNation in 2013. In that song, Murillo called out the two girls — then under 18 — by their actual names, calling them a “slut” and “cunt” respectively. In his lyrics, he also vowed to hunt them down for testifying the year before against his good friend, Shane Villalpando, who was ultimately convicted on three counts of unlawful intercourse with minors and sentenced to a year in jail. “I’ll have your head just like a dear. It will be hanging on my wall,” he rapped. “I said go and get the feds Cuz your gonna to end up dead.”
The four-day trial took place only after two North County Superior Court judges had previously rejected the felony charges, on the grounds the threat had not been made directly to either of the victims, but rather had been posted online in the form of a rap performance. “The intent of the song is rhyming rather than threat,” stated Judge Rick Brown. The case went to trial only after an appellate court ruled two years ago that the song could be construed as a true threat. Under state law, such charges can be upheld only if the lyrics could be construed to constitute a true threat by “a reasonable listener” and not merely an expression of frustration or jest by the performer.
“That’s where the First Amendment creeps its way in,” said defense attorney William Makler. “That’s where free speech is embedded in the statute.”
Makler had argued that Murillo had no intention of carrying out any of the threats made in the song — and said as much to Santa Maria police multiple times when arrested. The song, Makler said, clearly arose out of anger and frustration that Murillo’s best friend had been convicted and sentenced. Likewise, Makler argued that in rap music in general — and gangsta rap in particular — the artists don the cloak of bad-ass alter egos who are given to outrageous and often violent expressions that are understood to be fantastical and not to be taken literally.
Makler said he had not polled the jurors and could not hazard a guess as to their thinking when reaching their verdict. In addition, he noted it was never made clear in the song which of the two Jane Does Murillo was referring to when he vowed, “I’m coming for your head.” Maker said, “I know that sounds like a lawyerly thing to say, but when your client is looking at a felony conviction for exercising his First Amendment right, it matters.”
Prosecuting attorney Jennifer Karapetian did not return calls for comment by deadline, but her boss, District Attorney Joyce Dudley, stated via email, “We believed the evidence showed that the defendant threatened two sexual assault victims because they cooperated with the prosecution.” She added, “Many sexual assault cases often go unreported because victims feel too scared, embarrassed, or intimidated to come forward.”
The case of Anthony Murillo emerged as a collision course between the First Amendment and the rights of sexual assault victims. All parties involved attended St. Joseph’s Catholic School together. In the summer 2012, one of the Jane Does was with Villalpando and a friend at a backyard hot tub. At the time, she said, she’d never smoked pot before. Villalpando, she testified, got her stoned on weed so potent it all but paralyzed her, leaving her unable to resist when they initiated sexual relations. She was 16. When another girl, 14, came forward, Villalpando was charged with rape. He insisted the sex was consensual and wound up sentenced for three counts of unlawful sexual intercourse. He was 18.
When Jane Doe came forward, she stated she was shunned, jeered at, intimidated, and harassed by her peers at St. Joseph’s. The response was so bad she attempted suicide, and her family moved. She would emerge as a victim’s rights advocate, speaking out — using her real name — on televised interviews on national news networks. She would win an award from the District Attorney’s Office for her courage.
Makler acknowledges his client crossed a serious line when he posted the rap video. If the same thing had happened to his own daughter, he said, he would be “livid.” However, his response, he said, might have been to call the cops, get a restraining order, or sue for defamation. In the context of rap, he said, Lil A’s video — however misogynistic — did not constitute a threat. The shotgun Murillo brandished in the video turned out to be a toy gun. When Murillo was questioned by police, he admitted at the time, he “shouldn’t have done it.” Makler noted that Jane Doe was very familiar with the vernacular of rap music. He sought to introduce as evidence a video in which the victim herself posed as a cop holding a gun to the back of someone’s head. That video, however, was not allowed as evidence.
Before the trial, the ACLU had filed an amicus brief on behalf of Murillo. Despite the verdict, DA Dudley said, “We would not have done things differently.” Dudley added, “Sometimes when victims are courageous enough to come forward, they have to deal with bullying and harassment from the perpetrators and his friends. This case was a prime example.”
Makler said his client is currently gainfully employed, performing rap music and has had no run-ins with law enforcement.
Jane Doe stated via a Facebook exchange that she was “obviously disappointed in the verdict,” and she stated Makler should “feel shame” at trying to discredit her on the witness stand. As for Murillo, she said, “He knows what he did. He knows his intention. He never apologized and refused to take the threat down until I’m sure his attorney advised him.” She expressed “strong support” for the First Amendment but objected that the Constitution shouldn’t give someone the “right to threaten someone, especially the victim of a crime — even if it very poorly rhymes.”