Editor’s note: Later this week, the third trial of rapper Drakeo the Ruler on charges of profiting off of a gang conspiracy (California Penal Code § 182.5) begins in Compton. CRIME STORY will be covering that trial, as the nature of this law and its use by California Prosecutors raise significant Constitutional and Due Process questions. In conjunction with that coverage, we will also be publishing essays about the treatment of rap lyrics and culture by law enforcement in LA.
Molly Miller’s story below tells the story of the prosecution of 19 year old rapper, Ron Simmons aka Tiny Evil. While this case appears to involve substantial evidence of criminality beyond Simmons’ song lyrics and music videos, nevertheless the case also appears to offer a troubling example of the way that law enforcement has been allowed to criminalize the artistic expression of one segment of the population.
He sounds like a dad who has just discovered what “DTF” means and is explaining it to his friends.
Sgt. Martin McGee looks like he’s in his early sixties and has a pleasant crop of grey hair. He’s been a police officer for 30 years and his experience is evident in his comfort on the witness stand and his complete disregard for finicky fashion. McGee’s suit is bland. His tie is fat, red, and too short for his torso. Something about the way he mumbles is reminiscent of an old-timey cartoon character.
Sgt. McGee is testifying about the gun-filled, cash-flashing, lady-lush social media of Ron Simmons, aka Tiny Evil.
Ron Simmons is among a group of men charged in a series of burglaries that targeted celebrities and elderly couples in the San Gabriel Valley. Simmons is accused of participating in eight home invasions, but he’s also charged with Criminal Street Gang Conspiracy, which legally implicates him in dozens of other burglaries in which he wasn’t physically involved. As a result, Simmons’ case has the longest laundry list of charges I’ve ever seen: 12 counts of robbery, 58 counts of burglary, 5 counts of attempted burglary, 4 counts of attempted robbery, and 5 counts of elder abuse.
The weight of the Criminal Street Gang Conspiracy charge has shifted the prosecutor’s priorities. Testimony in this case must not simply prove that Simmons committed crimes. It must prove that he did those crimes for the benefit of a gang.
Enter Sgt. McGee and his social media prowess. He’s found Ron Simmons’ YouTube.
“Tiny Evil” is 19. He’s good-looking and radiates the kind of devil-may-care confidence that clings to many young adults like a cheap body spray. His YouTube channel contains a series of amateur rap videos including a music video for his single “Move On You.” Deputy District Attorney Christopher Baker displays stills from the video on a projector: Simmons caressing two AK-47s, Simmons and his friends wearing gold chains and throwing gang signs, Simmons waving a red bandana.
Sgt. McGee proceeds to decode the gang messages in the video for the jury. The red bandana shows allegiance to The Bloods. The gang signs with pinkie, index finger and thumb extended mean “Westside” or “Brims,” which is a sect of The Bloods. The guns are pretty self-explanatory. According to McGee, Simmons belongs to the Blood sect 6 Deuce Brims. He points out four, self-identified members of 6 Deuce Brims in the video. This is flashing-neon-sign evidence. It’s the kind that makes defense attorneys rub their temples and consider a different career.
It’s safe to say that Tiny Evil is most probably almost definitely in a gang.
But there’s more. The prosecutor displays photos from Simmons’ social media accounts on the projector.
In an Instagram photo, he’s perched on a granite countertop wearing a shiny, Adidas tracksuit. He sports a hefty, gold watch and fans a stack of dollar bills.
A Facebook photo shows Simmons posed in a gold Jaguar with a scantily clad woman.
Another Instagram photo features Simmons mugging to camera showing off a glistening, gold grill and diamond, stud earrings.
In these pictures, Simmons isn’t throwing gang signs, he’s not standing by known gang members, he’s not even wearing red.
The Deputy DA addresses McGee. “Can photos like that benefit the gang?”
McGee nods. He explains with rock-solid authority that social media pictures of gang members with stacks of cash show that the gang is active. The photos can encourage fellow gang members, intimidate rival gangs, and be used to recruit new gang members.
We’ve turned a corner. The verbiage has changed. Somewhere in the social media parade, the prosecution quit proving that Simmons was in a gang and started slipping towards a dangerous insinuation: that these photos of Simmons in which he displays wealth might be a crime in and of themselves.
I can’t help but wonder if the prosecution would be showing these photographic displays of affluence if the defendant weren’t a Black man.
Would an Instagram picture of an Italian bro on a fancy jet ski elicit criminal suspicion? How about an Asian woman holding three Gucci handbags? Or an Indian DJ wearing a diamond necklace? Or any white teen sitting in a Lamborghini with their designer sneakers propped on the dash and 100 grand in cold green cash stacked on their lap?
Through the filter of race can a flashy post become a tiny evil?
Update: On October 24 2019, Ron Simmons was found guilty of 1 count each of torture, aggravated mayhem, and conspiracy, 2 counts each of first-degree residential robbery and attempted residential robbery, 5 counts each of first-degree burglary with a person present and first-degree residential burglary. The jury acquitted Simmons of a sixth count of first-degree residential burglary and deadlocked on charges of elder abuse, but found all gang allegations to be true.
All other charges of robbery, burglary, attempted robbery, attempted burglary and elder abuse were dropped by prosecutors before the jury began deliberations.