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How Lawyers Became Celebrities on The Rap Internet

Earlier this week, Tory Lanez’s lawyer Jose Baez posted a note to his 35,000 followers on Instagram alleging that the DNA evidence in Lanez’s shooting case was “false and misleading.” As if he were dropping a new album himself, he announced that he would divulge more details at 6 PM that day. A rapper’s lawyer teasing an evidence reveal in a case is certainly a first. Though, of course, the information Baez offered was already in Lanez’s March 29th motion for a new trial — not to mention the leaked audio of Lanez incriminating himself in the case — but the Instagram post may have kept the dubious prospect of his innocence alive for rap blog dwellers clinging to hope. 

Baez’s social media maneuver in his client’s favor is just the latest unconventional example of how defense attorneys are managing the intersection of social media and hip-hop. Lawyers who represent entertainers automatically find themselves toiling in the court of public opinion, and the way they navigate the dodgy environment can sometimes be colorful. Sometimes, it’s as innocent as Lil Durk’s lawyer Nicole Moorman being praised online for her looks; or shoutouts like rapper Tsu Surf’s line, “My lawyer at my daughter birthday now, he family.” The rap world has seen a number of viral courtroom moments in the past year, some more premeditated than others.

Earlier in April, Justin Hill, a defense attorney in the YSL trial, went viral after using the slang term “cap” during pretrial proceedings in the RICO. While discussing a prior matter with presiding judge Ural Glanville, he said, “I was just saying, it’s not true. It’s cap, to be honest.” The term is a widely used colloquialism for saying someone is lying. In an interview with Complex, Hill said, “People who know me know my personality, so they kind of understand the context of that a little bit better. I don’t necessarily apologize for what I said. But I will say in hindsight, if I had known that it was going to get this big, I probably wouldn’t have said it.”

Another attorney for YSL, Anastassios Manettas, caused a separate social media fracas after being arrested last week for allegedly bringing prescription drugs past the court’s security checkpoint. Manettas’s colleague, Chadha Jimenez, told Rolling Stone that after telling him to toss his phone so that it wouldn’t be subject to a search at the jail, Manettas’s phone accidentally hit one of the deputy captains, leading to an additional charge of assaulting an officer. Manettas then took to his Instagram the next day to proclaim, “The Fulton County Sheriff held me unlawfully in a jail cell at the court house all day when I didn’t do anything wrong at all – then they took my mugshot at night…and I still look damn good.”

Attorney Mauricio Padilla represented Dedrick Williams, one of the three men recently convicted of murdering XXXTentacion in 2018. He decided to frame his defense around an internet rumor that Drake was involved in XXXTentacion’s murder in an attempt to raise a reasonable doubt about his client’s guilt. During the trial’s opening arguments, Padilla stated, “Before X died, he said, ‘If anybody kills me, it’s Drake.’ Do you think, sitting here years later, any detective has ever asked Drake or anybody like that? No.” Drake, real name Aubrey Graham, was issued a subpoena to testify in the case but declined to show up to proceedings in-person or via Zoom. Ultimately the judge decided that Drake had, he wasn’t called for questioning, and Williams was convicted to life in prison. It’s worth wondering what the lawyer’s defense would have been if he didn’t have a Reddit rumor to reach for. 

In February, Gunna’s attorney Steve Sadow told Rolling Stone that he felt Padilla employed a “good strategy,” noting, “he’s got a little something there that he can use to support his position, which is, to be honest with you, a lot more than we have most of the time.” Sadow had a brush with the blogosphere when defending the YSL rapper, who pled out to a five-year suspended sentence and time served in the RICO case against the group last December. Gunna released a statement where he spelled out that his Alford Plea didn’t include cooperating against his codefendants. Still, when commenters weren’t satisfied, Sadow took to his own Instagram to dispel snitching rumors. His post is an example of the new ways that attorneys have to protect their clients and clarify their work; celebrity lawyers of yesteryear like Johnnie Cochran didn’t have to steer the social media discussion during any of his high-profile cases. 

Sadow and Padilla used the sensationalist rap media cycle for their client’s good. But it’s not always a good idea to do so. In 2009, Harlem rapper Max B was sentenced to 75 years (since reduced to 12) for conspiracy charges involving armed robbery, kidnapping, aggravated assault, and felony murder. Gerald Saluti, his defense attorney, made his presence felt beside the rapper throughout the trial. Max B rhymes like, “Dour got me high as a kite, Saluti too” were initially humorous, but Saluti veered out of the realm of proper conduct when he did a multi-part DJ Vlad interview with Max B, tipping his defense and looking otherwise unprepared for the hefty task of a murder trial.

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Tony Yayo, a friend of Max B, spoke up about the situation at the time in an interview with MTV. “What lawyer do you know that’s gonna do a blog with you? That’s when I think everything got messed up. That blog fucked it up,” Yayo said. “You know I’m always in trouble. When I have a case, I don’t do no press, nothing. If you don’t got a lawyer there telling you, ‘Shut the fuck up,’ you’re fucked up.” His suspicion of Saluti’s impropriety was confirmed in 2019 when the latter was disbarred and sentenced to four years probation for being involved in a conspiracy where he and another lawyer stole over $140,000 from their own clients. 

Whether social media posts from their legal teams help or hurt rappers like Tory Lanez in court is unclear, but they never fail to get the internet talking. The rap blogosphere has frayed the spread of information, and now even vessels of the legal system are contending with how to deal with it.

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