EDWARDSVILLE, Ill. — Johnny Cash sang about having shot a man in Reno just to watch him die. Bob Marley belted out that he had shot the sheriff, but not the deputy.
Now, an aspiring artist accused of threatening a Virginia Tech-like shooting rampage is evoking reggae legend Marley and "The Man in Black" in a legal test of violent lyrics that's playing out in a southwestern Illinois courtroom.
The key piece of evidence in the case against Olutosin Oduwole is a note found more than two years ago in his disabled car demanding payment to a PayPal account, threatening "if this account doesn't reach $50,000 in the next 7 days then a murderous rampage similar to the VT shooting will occur at another highly populated university. THIS IS NOT A JOKE!"
At the time, Oduwole was a student at Southern Illinois University's Edwardsville campus, and authorities said they found ammunition in his car and a loaded handgun in his on-campus apartment.
Oduwole's attorneys insist his writings were harmless lyrics, and they pressed a judge on Nov. 12 to throw out the threat charge on free-speech grounds. The judge deferred a ruling in the case. Prosecutors counter there was little wiggle room in interpreting the note, found four months after a student killed 32 people and injured 25 before killing himself on Virginia Tech's campus.
"It's a very messy area," said David Hudson, a lawyer and scholar with the First Amendment Center, a Nashville, Tenn.-based free-speech education organization that's part of the Freedom Forum. "True-threat jurisprudence remains a muddled mess because lower courts apply different standards."
Oduwole's attorneys have cast it all as a misunderstanding, at times insisting his legal troubles were traceable to his foreign-sounding last name — Oduwole is a U.S. citizen with a Nigerian passport — and the "terror shock" they said gripped the country.
"This is not a hard case. This is not an ivory tower legal abstract," Oduwole attorney Jeffrey Urdangen told told Madison County Circuit Judge Richard Tognarelli on Nov. 12. "You cannot criminalize free speech."
In a brief, Urdangen argued that "homicidal, first-person narratives are found in rock music and reggae, as well as other genres." He continued, "The commonality of such statements across music genres suggests that no reasonable member of our society would interpret the lyrics written by Mr. Oduwole as an expression of intent to inflict death or serious bodily harm."
The felony threat count is punishable by up to 15 years behind bars, and Urdangen wrote that "it is beyond unjust to use written rap lyrics composed in private, shared with no one and found discarded in a car as the basis for prosecuting Mr. Oduwole and potentially subjecting him to many years in prison."
Prosecutors, in their own legal brief, counter that "in an era where school shootings have become prominent tragedies, writing about a plan to commit such a shooting" can't be overlooked, regardless of whether there is intent to carry it out.
Hudson noted that several deadly rampages — from Columbine to Virginia Tech — were carried out by gunmen who had penned items with violent themes. Still, he said, Oduwole's claim that the note was merely rap lyrics is "on its face, not a bogus argument — that's what I would say, too."
But prosecutors note that unlike Cash or Marley, Oduwole is unknown beyond his social network, meaning anyone stumbling onto lyrics demanding money and threatening on-campus carnage "may rightly and reasonably be alarmed and concerned."
Another distinction, prosecutor Jim Buckley wrote: "Bob Marley does not sing, 'I shot the sheriff, and in seven days I'm going to shoot the deputy.’”