Olutosin Oduwole was in his dorm room at Southern Illinois University when police knocked on his door one day in 2007. They were there to arrest him.
"In my mind I'm thinking, 'Okay, maybe a warrant for a ticket.' I really didn't know what was going on," he says.
What was going on was that the police suspected that Olutosin, a college student and aspiring rapper, was on the brink of committing a Virginia Tech-style mass shooting on his campus. He was soon charged with attempting to make a terrorist threat, and was eventually convicted and sent to prison.
That conviction was later overturned by an appeals court, but to prosecutors, the case remains a clear example of a tragedy averted. To Tosin and his supporters, however, his prosecution was a fool's errand — an example of bias in how people perceive rappers and rap music.
This week on Hidden Brain, we'll meet Olutosin and explore his case from all sides. We'll also consider what one criminologist sees as a troubling rise in prosecutions that use rap lyrics to bolster claims that a defendant is violent.
The Hidden Brain Podcast is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Maggie Penman, Jennifer Schmidt, Renee Klahr, Rhaina Cohen, and Parth Shah. Our supervising producer is Tara Boyle. You can also follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain, and listen for Hidden Brain stories each week on your local public radio station.
SHANKAR VEDANTAM, HOST:
A quick note before we start, this episode includes sounds of shootings from a college campus. It also features music with violent and explicit language. If you're listening with small kids, you may want to save this one for later. This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam.
On a chilly April morning in 2007, a nightmare unfolded on a college campus in Virginia. A 23-year-old student acting alone opened fire in a dormitory. He shot and killed two students. Then he walked across campus and began killing people in an engineering building. The sound of gunfire was caught on a student's cellphone.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)
TINA HARRISON: We weren't sure what it was. It was gunshots. But for a while, we thought it might have been construction. We heard this horrible scream and laughter.
VEDANTAM: Tina Harrison was a student in the building.
HARRISON: So we're sitting in the classroom, and basically panic broke out. All we could hear was people screaming, laughter and more screaming. And I counted 24 gunshots within a minute, and I lost track after that. I just started praying.
VEDANTAM: By the time the assault ended, 32 people were dead. The gunman took his own life. The shooting at Virginia Tech was quickly seared into our minds as one of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history. The news media tried to convey the sheer scale of the massacre.
(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS MONTAGE)
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: There was terror and then sorrow today at the campus of Virginia Tech.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: An act of evil on a scale that we've never seen in this country before.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Twenty-four hours after the news began to break, Blacksburg, Va., is still in shock from its wounds. And so is much of...
VEDANTAM: But even as the country mourned, people began to ask why campus officials hadn't been more proactive. Why hadn't they spotted the warning signs? Why hadn't they locked down the school after the shooting in the dorm? At a press conference, campus police tried to explain.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We had information from witnesses and the evidence at the scene that led us to believe the shooter was no longer in the building and more than likely off campus.
VEDANTAM: The reporters grilled officials, who, at times, seemed lost for words.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: Chief, can you outline your lockdown policy for the university?
WENDELL FLINCHUM: Are you saying that, do we have a policy to lock down the campus?
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: Yeah, like when and under what circumstances do you do it? What's your time frame on the...
FLINCHUM: I don't - it's not in my communications plan.
VEDANTAM: Eventually, the state of Virginia and the university paid victims' families more than $11 million to settle lawsuits. Across the nation, universities scrambled to improve their security protocols. Many added expensive upgrades to emergency alert systems and hired new police officers to stay on top of possible danger.
A wariness took hold on college campuses. A subtle fear was in the air, a low-grade buzz of anxiety. People weren't taking chances. At schools like Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville, small things that were out of place led to intense scrutiny.
TOM GIBBONS: His car was discovered parked in a very conspicuous, a very unusual, no-parking area at the university here in Edwardsville. And they found, you know, visible in the car, a note.
VEDANTAM: This week on HIDDEN BRAIN, we explore a complicated case that unfolded in the months after the Virginia Tech shooting. It was so complicated that even today, years later, people still disagree about what really happened. At the heart of the case was this question - how can we know, really know, what's happening inside another person's head? Perception, reality and judgment, this week on HIDDEN BRAIN.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
VEDANTAM: Three months after the Virginia Tech massacre, an Illinois gun dealer picked up the phone and call the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. He told an agent that he was worried about a client who was trying to purchase guns.
GIBBONS: It was the first time he'd ever made a report to the ATF, in, I think, about 10 years of being a gun seller, a gun dealer.
VEDANTAM: Tom Gibbons is the Madison County, Ill., state's attorney. Tom says the man who'd contacted the gun dealer was agitated and adamant. He said he needed the guns quickly.
GIBBONS: And what he was purchasing was unusual. He was buying three low-cost, exact same models of a gun - a semiautomatic handgun, .380 caliber.
VEDANTAM: The gun dealer explained that the man, whose name was Olutosin Oduwole, had purchased the guns wholesale on the Internet and needed him, a licensed transfer agent, to complete the transaction. Olutosin's background check was clean, but the gun dealer felt something wasn't right.
The ATF suspected Olutosin might possibly be a straw purchaser, someone buying guns for someone else. But Tom Gibbons says police also considered more sinister motives.
GIBBONS: Having three identical weapons - if a person's going to do something harmful or commit a mass casualty event, having three identical firearms has the advantage of being able to use the identical ammunition, to use the exact same magazines with that ammunition no matter which of the guns you're using. And of course, buying low-cost, multiple weapons allows you to have multiple weapons available at a single time.
VEDANTAM: The ATF quickly learned that Olutosin was a student at Southern Illinois University.
GIBBONS: The ATF contacted the local police department, and they began to look into it.
VEDANTAM: According to documents later filed in court, the ATF agent also called campus police detective Rick Weissenborn. The ATF gave the detective a heads up that Olutosin had ordered weapons over the Internet. Rick Weissenborn wrote a memo to his colleagues that advised them to use caution if they encountered the young man.
Two days later, a police officer on a routine campus patrol came across an unattended car. He alerted Rick Weissenborn, who went to investigate. Police traced the license plate to Olutosin Oduwole.
GIBBONS: His car was discovered parked in a very conspicuous, a very unusual no-parking area at the university here in Edwardsville.
VEDANTAM: Police monitored the vehicle to see if anyone approached it. For two days, Rick Weissenborn drove past the car himself. No one showed up. The detective notified his supervisor. Campus police were authorized to tow a vehicle that had been left unattended for more than 24 hours.
GIBBONS: So when his car was being towed, it's police department policy that the car is inventoried. They take an inventory of the contents, and they found, you know, visible in the car, a note.
VEDANTAM: It was protruding from underneath the center console. It had writing on both sides. On one side were what seemed like rap lyrics. Turn the page over, and there were more lyrics. Tom says they read like this.
GIBBONS: And I - you may have to bleep some of this out. I lead, she, a follower. I'm single and not with her, but she got a throat deeper than a sword swallower.
VEDANTAM: Further down on the page was more writing. Tom says these were not lyrics.
GIBBONS: Send $2 to - and then it's a PayPal account. If the money doesn't reach $50,000 in the next seven days, then a murderous rampage similar to the Virginia Tech shooting will occur at another highly populated university - and then, in all capital letters, this is not a joke.
VEDANTAM: Police didn't take it as one. Detective Rick Weissenborn took photos of the vehicle. While snapping pictures of the back seat, he noticed release straps and pulled them to lower the seatbacks. He found a wad of clothing. There was a long-sleeved shirt, a short-sleeved shirt and a knit cap with a ski mask. The detective seized all of it. Officers also found six rounds of .25 caliber ammunition in the car. They felt they needed to act fast.
THOMAS PHILLIPS III: It was pretty early in the morning, I remember. And I had just gotten up and gotten out of the shower.
VEDANTAM: This is Thomas Phillips III. He was Olutosin Oduwole's roommate that summer. He remembers a loud pounding on the door.
PHILLIPS III: And there was about eight police officers standing there.
VEDANTAM: Thomas was asked to step out of the room. Police told Olutosin he was under arrest. Olutosin was wearing basketball shorts and a tank top. He didn't have shoes on.
PHILLIPS III: They cuffed him. They had his hands behind his back, and he didn't look my way when he came out. But I don't also think that he saw where I was sitting because I was sitting off to the side on the stairs. But they took him out the long way, toward the back, where they had a car waiting for him.
VEDANTAM: A search of the dorm room uncovered a camcorder, videocassettes and a Dell laptop computer. Tom Gibbons says there was also something else - a Jennings .25 caliber pistol.
GIBBONS: A loaded firearm.
VEDANTAM: The gun belonged to Olutosin. So let's review. A young man attempts to purchase multiple guns over the Internet. He's described as agitated and anxious by a gun dealer involved in the transaction. The ATF launches an investigation. The young man's car is found, apparently abandoned, on a campus side road. Inside it is a piece of paper with a threat on it, alluding to ransom and a possible massacre on a university campus. When the young man is arrested, a loaded gun is discovered in his dorm room. State's Attorney Tom Gibbons says police felt they had prevented a serious crime.
GIBBONS: So connecting the dots, it became apparent that, in fact, he was planning. He was, if not planning an actual mass casualty event, he was planning to be able to credibly threaten that. And he was taking steps, actual steps, towards making a terrorist threat.
VEDANTAM: It wasn't long before the news media got ahold of the story. Coming just after the Virginia Tech shooting, the story generated wall-to-wall coverage. Thomas Phillips.
PHILLIPS III: For I'd say about a week solid, news coverage had his face on CNN, MSNBC, like, you know, pretty much any news station you could turn to that had headline news. And he was either the first or second subject of it.
That's all we saw on the news of him was pretty much, he's a terrorist. He planned this entire attack. He left a threatening note in his car. There was ammunition. He was purchasing guns to either fund this attack or carry the attack out. They showed a table of guns that he never got but that he wanted to actually buy at some point.
VEDANTAM: It turned out Olutosin had actually ordered four guns off the Internet, three of them low-caliber guns identical to one another. And the other was a .45 caliber MAC-10 semiautomatic. State's Attorney Tom Gibbons.
GIBBONS: That is a high - high capacity, certainly a high caliber. And it's a scary - certainly a scary looking gun.
VEDANTAM: As reporters pressed for answers, the investigation grew. Friends were contacted, evidence collected. Then police discovered something important.
GIBBONS: During the investigation, there were computers seized. And something that was located on his girlfriend's computer was a file that he had created in a program called Movie Maker. And what he had made was a video with this language that was found in the note.
VEDANTAM: It was language that read, do you remember the chaos at Virginia Tech? Well, guess what? It's going to happen again in June 2007, unless the viewers of this collectively deposit a total of $200,000 in the following Paypal account - or else the number of students killed in Virginia Tech will be topped during the summer school semester at a target university. This is not a joke.
Tom Gibbons told me that the language was found in a file that had been deleted.
If the video was deleted, how did you know what was in it?
GIBBONS: Well, because nothing is ever really completely deleted off a computer. Our forensic examiners were able to go in, take an image of the hard drive after securing it and extract and do an analysis of all the data that remains on a hard drive.
VEDANTAM: On July 24, 2007, Olutosin Oduwole was formerly charged with storing a weapon in campus housing, and a far more serious crime, attempting to make a terrorist threat.
GIBBONS: The case that was made was effectively that he had constructed this threat. He was planning to use this threat, either to act upon it - it was either that or he was trying to extort money.
VEDANTAM: It was a strange charge - an attempt to make a threat. But since prosecutors couldn't prove the threat had actually been communicated to anyone, that was the best they could do.
GIBBONS: I would say that there was only one step missing that we couldn't improve, and that was the actual public posting of the threat. That was the only last piece of evidence that we didn't have that would have made it a completed terrorist threat.
VEDANTAM: But Tom felt they had plenty of proof showing planning, preparation, an effort to purchase firearms.
GIBBONS: It's like a conspiracy type of case. It's not exactly conspiracy but in the same vein. A person is taking actual, substantial steps toward the commission of the offense. And by doing that, they are, in effect, attempting to commit it.
VEDANTAM: I asked Tom if this was like someone who does some research on how to hire a hitman but doesn't act on it.
GIBBONS: Well, I would liken it more to the person who takes the gun, drives to the intended victim's house and for whatever reason doesn't get out of the car. But they've taken an actual, substantial step toward the act, toward the murder. It's more than just thinking about it. It's more than just a little bit of research. There was a substantial amount of work that went into this.
VEDANTAM: So I like the analogy that you have just now. And I'm curious sort of from a legal perspective what you do with that because let's say someone does buy a gun and does drive to someone's house and doesn't get out of their car and drives off. And let's say the authorities have some way of knowing about all of this happening. Can you charge that person with a crime?
GIBBONS: In the murder context, no. In the threatening context, you can because they're taking actual steps. They're creating things. They're creating the threat.
VEDANTAM: In Tom Gibbons' mind, a catastrophe had been averted. But had it? To find out, I went to meet the man who police described as a dangerous, would-be terrorist. Stay with us.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
VEDANTAM: Olutosin Oduwole, it's a Nigerian name, but it was given to a boy who was born and raised in St. Louis, Mo.
OLUTOSIN ODUWOLE: You know, as a kid, me and my brothers and our friends in the neighborhood, we used to play in our backyard. We used to go out into the woods and play hide-and-seek and cops and robbers and all that good stuff. And we used to ride our bikes all throughout the neighborhood.
VEDANTAM: Olutosin's parents left Nigeria and emigrated to the United States when they were young. Tosin (ph), as he was called, was raised with his five brothers in a six-bedroom house in St. Louis. He was surrounded by music, lots and lots of music.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NUTHIN' BUT A G THANG")
DR. DRE: (Rapping) One, two, three and to the four, Snoop Doggy Dogg and Dr. Dre is at the door, ready to make an entrance...
ODUWOLE: I fell in love with music probably around 7 or 8 years old. You know, I grew up listening to a lot of Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, a lot of West Coast music, a little bit of, like, Biggie and Nas, but majority West Coast music.
VEDANTAM: What Tosin is talking about here is '90s-style gangster rap straight out of LA. Young men, like Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, were writing their talent into stardom.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NUTHIN' BUT A G THANG")
DR. DRE: (Rapping) Perfection is perfected, so I'm a let 'em understand from a young G's perspective. And before me dig out a bitch, I have to find a contraceptive. You never know, she could be earning...
VEDANTAM: Gangster rap evolved from hip-hop. It's long been controversial because it emphasizes the gangster lifestyle and, at times, promotes violence, misogyny, drugs and murder. But it's popular and commercially very lucrative. For a kid like Tosin, it was magnetic. He was all in.
ODUWOLE: In eighth grade, specifically it was eighth grade, me and a lot of my friends, we used to start, like, rapping at the lunch table. We'd freestyle, and somebody would do the beat on the table. And we would just go in a circle just freestyling, you know. And it'd be, like, seven or eight of us. And we would do this every single day, literally every single day. And it was just a lot of, you know, profanity, a lot of just, OK, we can finally say what we want to say and...
VEDANTAM: Give me an example.
ODUWOLE: OK, so you UGK has a song called "Take It Off," which was really, really big around, like - from, like, '95 to '98. And so that was a really, really big song.
VEDANTAM: How does it go?
ODUWOLE: It was - (laughter) you're putting me on the spot. It was (rapping) take it off, chick, bend over. Let me see it. If you're looking for a trill-type nigger, let me be it. Got that V-12 Benz parked outside. It ain't enough room to put them goods in my ride. (Speaking) Something like that.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKE IT OFF")
UGK: (Rapping) Uh, you got to take it off, take it off, uh, and let a first-class nigger break you off. Chick, you got to take it off, take it off, uh, and let a first-class...
VEDANTAM: You learned this when you were 12?
ODUWOLE: Oh, yeah, definitely (laughter).
VEDANTAM: And so this has stayed with you for a long time (laughter).
ODUWOLE: Oh, of course, that's one of my most favorite - favorite groups of when I was a kid.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKE IT OFF")
UGK: (Rapping) Now what I'm supposed to do? Been got close to you looking like a poster too...
VEDANTAM: Tosin says the swearing and tough talk - that wasn't really the point. The music itself was what moved him.
ODUWOLE: Like, the rhythm, the bass, the drums, the hi-hats, it was kind of like - it was just like a feel. You know, like the - I think what really makes people gravitate towards music is how it makes them feel. And so hip-hop itself, I mean, even if you're not necessarily from the culture, you know, hip-hop makes you feel a certain way. It makes you feel strong, braggadocios, free. It makes you feel creative.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKE IT OFF")
UGK: (Rapping) You got to take it off, take it off. And let a first-class nigga break you off...
VEDANTAM: Tosin had a dream that maybe someday he could make a name for himself as a rap star. But when he was 14, his father sent him abroad for school, first to England and then to Nigeria. Now, that might not seem the best move for an aspiring rap artist. But Tosin says his Nigerian boarding school was full of kids like him.
ODUWOLE: So I was surrounded - around a lot of people from New Jersey, New York, Atlanta, California and London. And a lot of them made music. And so a lot of what we used to do in Nigeria when we were in the dorms is that we would write rap music. And I think it was in Nigeria where I really got I guess, like, creative and better and - because we were able to just really lock in.
You know, in America I was only with my friends at school seven hours of the day. In Nigeria, I'm with them 24 hours a day for three months (laughter), you know. And so it was - yeah, it was - it was where, I guess, I fell in love with it more, was when I was in Africa.
VEDANTAM: It was in Nigeria that Tosin made his public debut as a rapper, in church. He went to a Christian school, and each Sunday the entire school went to church. It was a huge church.
ODUWOLE: Sometimes they would allow students from the church to either sing songs on stage or do performances. We decided to do a rap.
VEDANTAM: A Christian rap in front of the entire congregation - 2,500 people. When Tosin to tells the story, you can hear his happiness just remembering that moment.
ODUWOLE: I run on stage with the mic. And everybody's like, ahh (ph). And everybody's, like, praising you. And then I started rapping. Nobody heard what I said, but they were going crazy. And it was like, this is a church. It really fed my ego. I go, man, like, people love me (laughter).
The people love me, you know, like, whatever. It's just church. But that was really, really, I guess, a confidence builder as far as, like, OK, you can take your raps away from just your circle of friends and actually, like, say them to the public.
VEDANTAM: When Tosin was in his last year of high school in Nigeria, he applied to go to college in the United States. He had only one school in mind, Southern Illinois University. It appealed to him because it was close to St. Louis, close to his family, his friends, his home. He was accepted. In the fall of 2005, he started his freshman year.
Tosin describes it as a pretty typical introduction to college life - classes, parties, students always moving together in huge groups. In the spring, Tosin decided to join a fraternity. He chose and was accepted by Iota Phi Theta, an historically African-American frat. Thomas Phillips met Tosin through the fraternity. He remembers his first glimpse of him because Tosin stood out.
PHILLIPS III: He was a little bitty kid wearing a gigantic hoodie and the biggest headphones.
VEDANTAM: Vintage headphones.
PHILLIPS III: So, you know, like, back in, like, the '80s when they first had, like, the home stereo headphones that were, like, the big gigantic cushion pairs with the metal braces on the sides, like ones you wouldn't necessarily wear out in public? You might listen to, like, these headphones in the comfort of your own home.
But something about those headphones and him being as small as he was then kind of stuck out to me. And so as it turned out, he was really big into music, especially rap music, and that was the best pair of headphones he could find at the time. They gave him the best sound quality, so...
VEDANTAM: So the two became good friends. Thomas says Tosin was big-hearted. He looked out for people. He often asked fraternity brothers to help him check up on the homeless in the area. He organized campus events, including a speech by former Black Panther Bobby Seale. And he drew people together with his music. It was music that made him such a good fit for the fraternity.
PHILLIPS III: At the time, most of us in the fraternity at least had some kind of musical talent. Like, if you didn't play an instrument, you sung. If you couldn't sing, you rapped. If you couldn't do any of the three, which I can't, then you were either a producer or a mixer.
VEDANTAM: Tosin, of course, rapped. Thomas produced. They started talking about making it big. As Thomas describes those days to me, he says it's important to understand one thing about Tosin. His music meant everything to him, but it wasn't him.
PHILLIPS III: So one of the things that I did notice was that as much as Tosin - his personality - his actual personality came through in his actions, his music was entirely different.
VEDANTAM: Tosin did relish songs with violent and misogynistic lyrics, but that didn't mean that he was a violent or misogynistic person.
PHILLIPS III: One of his favorite groups at the time was Three 6 Mafia.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHO RUN IT")
THREE 6 MAFIA: (Rapping) Who run it? Who run it? Who run it? Who run it?
PHILLIPS III: I'm not sure if you're familiar with them or not, but a lot of their music at the time was pretty much the version of rock and roll's, like, sex and drugs kind of deal.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHO RUN IT")
THREE 6 MAFIA: (Rapping) These bitches ain't running shit but y'all mouth because the first hater step, the first hater getting tossed out...
PHILLIPS III: Eventually, Thomas and Tosin decided to move in together. They found a ratty two-bedroom apartment not far from campus. Thomas says it was perfect.
PHILLIPS III: Meaning, like, if you want to rap about, you know, how hard your life is and how, you know, there's a lot of crime in your area and you want to rap about what's real, like, this was the place that you can actually do it. And it feels authentic because you're not actually recording this from, you know, a nice apartment in St. Louis someplace. You're not recording this in a hotel or in a penthouse or in a nice recording studio. We were in the basement. There were roaches everywhere. And we're recording this in a closet.
ODUWOLE: You know - because our studio was in the living room. There was a closet in the living room, which was for coats. Like, you know when you have guests come, you take their coats. You put them in the closet. We turned that closet into a studio booth. So our microphone was in there. We put foam all over the walls to kind of soundproof it, and that was the studio booth.
VEDANTAM: The apartment became a rap salon or, as Tosin puts it, an artist's den.
ODUWOLE: And so that was how it was. It was pieces of paper and notebooks everywhere in the living room, a couch, a TV, a computer, studio equipment, microphone, keyboard. And that was our artist space.
VEDANTAM: They were experimenting, writing, rewriting, trying to compose songs that worked. They played a couple of gigs on campus. Sometimes they handed out free CDs to get their name out. But money was always tight, and they needed better equipment.
Tosin views himself as an entrepreneur. He proudly points out that he came from a family of self-starters. So, he says, he started looking for opportunities to make some extra cash. He landed on an idea - one that, in retrospect, might not have been the best. It involved the Internet and guns.
ODUWOLE: And so I was thinking, OK, you know, maybe this could be, like, a beginner business where I could buy these guns very cheap from the manufacturers online, have them shipped to a local dealer and then resell them for retail price and make a little bit of money. And we could use this money and buy all the equipment - studio equipment that we could dream of - because that was one thing that was kind of harming us our first six or seven months. The equipment that we were recording music with was very bad. It was just - you know, the final songs - there'd be a lot of static, and - we just knew we needed better equipment.
VEDANTAM: What Tosin was thinking off is called drop shipping. It's used all the time in online sales. When you buy a product online from a retailer, that product isn't necessarily sitting in the retailer's warehouse. Sometimes the retailer has to order it from a wholesaler. You've paid for a product the retailer doesn't physically possess. Tosin thought he could adapt this model to the online gun market - buy guns wholesale, and then mark up the price.
ODUWOLE: The basic business idea was buy low; sell high - period.
VEDANTAM: Tosin advertised guns for sale online. Once people bought them, he ordered the guns from the wholesaler. But with gun sales, there's a catch. Guns bought wholesale must go through a licensed gun dealer before they can pass on to a buyer. That didn't worry Tosin. He wasn't doing anything illegal. He contacted a local gun dealer and asked him to put through the transaction.
ODUWOLE: And so that was what I was doing. You know, I never took possession of those guns. I never intended to. I never did.
VEDANTAM: Tosin agrees that he called the gun dealer repeatedly to ask about the weapons. But that's because, he says, he had already accepted money from buyers and needed to complete the transaction.
So to recap, we have a young man with big dreams. He's got a budding career as a rapper, an active social life and a commitment to community service. He's buying guns - but only, he says, to sell them and make a little extra cash for music equipment. This is not the picture of a would-be terrorist. But that brings us to that piece of paper that police found in Tosin's car. As State's Attorney Tom Gibbons put it...
GIBBONS: They found, you know, visible in the car, a note.
VEDANTAM: It had music lyrics on one side but a threat on the other.
GIBBONS: Send $2 to - and then it's a PayPal account. If the money doesn't reach $50,000 in the next seven days, then a murderous rampage similar to the Virginia Tech shooting will occur at another highly-populated university and then, in all capital letters, this is not a joke.
VEDANTAM: It would be hard to explain away a note like this demanding ransom, threatening a campus massacre. But Tosin says the problem lies in one word, note. What the police found, he insists, was not a note. It was scribbled ideas for a rap song. This is how Tosin says it all unfolded. It began as an idea one night in the artist's den. Tosin had just finished watching the TV show "Law & Order." The episode was about some bloggers who livestreamed their home on social media.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LAW AND ORDER")
MICHELLE TRACHTENBERG: (As Willow) So it's me, Willow, again. A lot of you commented on the fight that Holden and I had in yesterday's video.
ODUWOLE: And so the way the episode started off...
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LAW AND ORDER")
TRACHTENBERG: (As Willow) Granted, a few of the things he said...
ODUWOLE: ...While they were livestreaming, just hanging out, masked men kick in the door, kidnap the girl, beat up her boyfriend. And then later, they get back on her online page and start a ransom.
VEDANTAM: Tosin was fascinated by the episode. He loved the way it played with viewers. All the way through, it kept people guessing. Were they watching an actual kidnapping take place online? We're they watching performance art? Tosin thought the premise might make a cool spoken introduction to a rap song.
ODUWOLE: And so that was where the idea - I was trying to figure out something - I tried to figure out something that would be real to what's actually in life. Like, there is PayPal, and there is YouTube. And there is et cetera, et cetera. And so it was kind of like a copy of that but into something that wasn't as fake as that, something that was actually real.
VEDANTAM: Sometimes rap songs start this way, with introductions that set a scene with lyrics that don't rhyme. That, says Tosin's friend Thomas, is what they were playing with.
PHILLIPS III: Have you heard the introduction to Nas' "It Was Written"?
VEDANTAM: I haven't. What - how does it go?
PHILLIPS III: It starts off with two slaves in a field. And this is back in, you know, the slavery days, so - in American history. So what happens is that the two slaves hear the overseer coming, and they decide to stage, you know, a revolt right at that point.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT WAS WRITTEN")
NAS: Damn you, master. You ain't my master, man. You ain't nothing. You ain't nothing.
PHILLIPS III: And you hear the slaves beating the master down. And then you hear the - you know, the slaves being dragged away once the revolt's pretty much quelled at that point.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT WAS WRITTEN")
NAS: Hey, boy, you see what they done did to Jimmy and Lee?
PHILLIPS III: So it's the introduction that draws you in. And you hear this violent introduction, and then the lead song comes on.
VEDANTAM: Tosin wondered whether the demand for a ransom and the threat of a campus shooting could make for a good intro. The friends played with the idea and tried out a few things. They wrote some lyrics on a piece of paper. They even made a lyric video where the words of a song scroll on the screen.
Tosin felt it didn't work. But some of the lines he wrote on the other side of the paper did eventually become a song.
ODUWOLE: It was called "Pop It, Mami, Pop It." It's, like, a club song. It's about, like, girls dancing in a club.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POP IT, MAMI, POP IT")
ODUWOLE: (Singing) Pop it, mami, pop it. Pop it, mami, pop it - go on ahead drop it for me. Pop it, mami, pop it.
I wrote it complete from beginning to end.
VEDANTAM: The lyrics on the other side of the paper were the ones that Tosin discarded. It was the reference to the Virginia Tech shootings, the threat of a mass killing. When Tosin decided to move back to campus sometime later, he threw all his notebooks and paper and clothes into his car to move them to a dorm. One sheet of paper slipped under the center console. It was the sheet police would later find in his car.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
VEDANTAM: Tosin says the police simply had him wrong. He wasn't a terrorist in the making. He was a student, a musician, a budding entrepreneur. He left his car on a campus side road for a simple reason. He'd run out of gas. He says he was going to get more fuel when he got paid at the end of the week.
And that loaded gun in his dorm - Tosin agrees he shouldn't have had the gun in campus housing. But he insists it was an innocent mistake. He'd legally registered the weapon and thought that that made it OK to have it with him on campus. Both Tosin and his friend Thomas say owning guns was not unusual in their part of the Midwest. It just wasn't a big deal.
PHILLIPS III: One of the things that I kind of want to, like, make sure that everybody's clear on is that down in southern Illinois and St. Louis, Mo., area and all that, there was a pretty big gun culture. So when we moved off campus one of the things that he mentioned that he wanted to do and that we both ended up doing was applying for our FOID cards, the firearm identification that Illinois has. You have to get an ID to own or carry a firearm.
VEDANTAM: Thomas and Tosin both say they had no idea the police were poking around. So when the cops burst into their dorm and arrested Tosin, it came as a complete surprise.
ODUWOLE: So as far as in my mind, I'm thinking, OK, maybe I have a warrant for a ticket or - I really didn't know what was going on. And so I asked them several times that - can I call my dad? Like, I want to call my dad just to let him know what's going on. Can I call my older brother? And they wouldn't let me make any phone calls.
VEDANTAM: He says it wasn't until a couple of days later, when Thomas came to visit, that he actually began to understand what was going on.
ODUWOLE: So I picked up the phone and was talking to him through the glass. And the first thing he asked me was how am I. I said, I'm fine, man, just trying to figure out what's going on. And then that's when he says, do you remember that night when we were writing and producing, and you wrote the thing about the PayPal account and the thing we got from the "Law & Order" episode? And I was like, yeah. And then he says, that's what this is about. And so when - he said that twice. He said, that's what this is about.
VEDANTAM: Tosin worried they thought he was a terrorist. And then came the charge for attempted terrorist threat.
ODUWOLE: I'd never heard of a charge like that before, you know, attempted terrorist threat, not a terrorist threat.
VEDANTAM: Still, Tosin was sure the confusion would soon be cleared up.
ODUWOLE: You know, as soon as my dad gets here with our lawyer, we'll be able to explain this. And, you know, and that'll be the end of it. They made a mistake, and we can go back to our lives.
VEDANTAM: But when the story hit the news, Tosin says everything got warped.
ODUWOLE: They were saying a Nigerian citizen, Olutosin Oduwole, and making it seem like I was, like, a foreigner that, like, came over here - and just the way I was being portrayed as if, like, I was a terrorist. And of course, my name was mispronounced on purpose to make it sound really, really foreign and just different. And they were not describing me like I was a kid born and raised in St. Louis, Mo.
VEDANTAM: The news media kept harping on the note. They distorted it, Tosin says.
ODUWOLE: And so, yeah - so when you now paint it that way, as a note and violence and guns, it's very easy to make anybody feel like, oh, yeah, this was one bad guy - because you can craft information and make something appear the way you want to if you have the upper hand.
VEDANTAM: Tosin says no one in law enforcement wanted to hear his side of the story. Thomas Phillips felt the same. After police initially talked to Thomas, he tried to go back to them and explained that they had it all wrong.
PHILLIPS III: It's a shame that I can actually tell somebody, like, a law enforcement official after the initial interview, this is what actually has happened; could y'all add this to the story - and that no one's going to hear it because everybody's mind's already made up with what actually appears to be the case.
VEDANTAM: Why did that happen? There were lots of issues - race, culture, the fear of a mass shooting. And there was the music.
CHARIS KUBRIN: After we ran the analysis, we found that in every dimension, rap lyrics were evaluated more negatively compared to when the lyrics were perceived to be country.
VEDANTAM: Stay with us.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
VEDANTAM: A few months after Tosin was arrested, a visitor showed up to meet Jeffrey Urdangen, a professor and lawyer at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law. The man was Toyin Oduwole, Tosin's father.
JEFFREY URDANGEN: Toyin was unruffled and extremely poised and dignified.
VEDANTAM: Tosin's father wanted Jeffrey to take on his son's case. He was intrigued and agreed. Jeffrey drove five hours south to see Tosin at the Madison County Jail.
URDANGEN: It was a contact visit because I was an attorney, and that was our first meeting. He was - if I recall, he was shackled at the ankles and handcuffed at his wrists. And he was a quiet young guy, great eye contact, not particularly frightened like so many people are in that situation.
VEDANTAM: In light of the Virginia Tech massacre, Jeffrey says he understood why police suspected Tosin. But he says they should have quickly figured out that they were off track.
URDANGEN: Once you did your investigation, you should have known that you were off on a fool's errand. You should have known, and it wouldn't have taken too much effort to realize that he was not plotting or planning some kind of massacre. You could have realized and seen very readily that these were lyrics.
In fact, there were lyrics on the opposite side, if I recall, of that note - on both sides. And I believe that there were lyrics throughout the car and his apartment. When they searched it, they found notebooks with hundreds of pages of rap lyrics.
VEDANTAM: Investigators were unable to find evidence that Tosin had a violent side. Teachers and students maintained he wasn't threatening. But the prosecution disagreed. State's Attorney Tom Gibbons says despite Tosin's insistence that what was on the paper were lyrics, he remains certain that they were not.
GIBBONS: I've probably read at least a thousand pages of his writing to get - to get to know the mind of Olutosin Oduwole and to understand the difference between the types of writings that he did. And so, you know, having - and after reviewing all that, spending a lot of time looking at it, mostly in my free time at night, I became convinced that in fact, this was genuinely a crime.
This was an individual planning a very serious crime. This was not prosecuting someone for writing lyrics. This was prosecuting somebody for all of the substantial steps that he had taken toward very serious crimes and potentially a mass casualty event.
VEDANTAM: So now we have two different stories. One is a tale of a potential terrorist plotting a campus massacre. Another is a story of a young man who has unlawfully stored a gun at his university, but otherwise has done little wrong. It would be up to a jury to decide which story was the truthful one and how to understand those words written on that piece of paper. But before we head to trial, I want to introduce you to one more person.
KUBRIN: My name is Charis Kubrin and I'm a professor of criminology, law and society at the University of California Irvine.
VEDANTAM: Charis was called as an expert for the defense in Tosin's case, in part because of some interesting research she's done. She was noticing a large number of prosecutions that were introducing rap lyrics in court. She had a basic question.
KUBRIN: Are violent lyrics perceived as more threatening, more dangerous, more literal, more in need of regulation when they are described as rap compared to other music genres?
VEDANTAM: This question, she felt, was intricately linked to the outcomes of criminal cases.
KUBRIN: Because prosecutors are using rap lyrics as evidence and these criminal trials, I felt this raises a whole host of questions about whether prosecutors, judges, jurors may be relying on perception and stereotype about rappers and rap music in their interpretation and evaluation of the lyrics.
VEDANTAM: So Charis devised a study. She pulled lyrics from a 1960s folk song.
KUBRIN: We identified a set of violent lyrics. It was actually lyrics from this song "Bad Man's Blunder." And it's a Kingston Trio folk group from the '60s. And the lyrics go something like this. Well, early one evening, I was rollin' around. I was feelin' kind of mean. I shot a deputy down. Strollin' on home and I went to bed. Well, I laid my pistol up under my head. Well, early in the morning 'bout the break of day, I figured it was time to make a getaway. Steppin' right along but I was steppin' too slow. Got surrounded by a sheriff down in Mexico.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BAD MAN'S BLUNDER")
THE KINGSTON TRIO: (Singing) Well, early in the morning 'bout the break of day, I figured it was time to make a getaway. Steppin' right along but I was steppin' too slow, got surrounded by a sheriff down in Mexico. He was steppin' right along...
KUBRIN: So we took this set of violent lyrics, and we told participants in our experiment that they were either rap lyrics or country music lyrics.
VEDANTAM: Charis then asked them how threatening and offensive they perceived the lyrics to be and whether they felt the lyrics should be regulated.
KUBRIN: And after we ran the analysis, we found that in every dimension, rap lyrics were evaluated more negatively compared to when the lyrics were perceived to be country.
VEDANTAM: Charis then replicated the study. Again, she didn't play songs for volunteers. She just printed out the lyrics from a Johnny Cash song.
KUBRIN: Called "Boy Named Sue."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A BOY NAMED SUE")
JOHNNY CASH: But I busted a chair right across his teeth, and we crashed through the wall and into the street, kicking and...
KUBRIN: And by the way, Johnny Cash gets invoked a lot because everyone knows his, you know, his song, I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die (laughter) - right? And so Johnny Cash gets kind of invoked, like, well, why can Johnny Cash say lyrics like that, where he's shooting a man in Reno, and there's other violence? But when rappers do it, it's seen as literal.
But anyway, we selected these lyrics from "A Boy Named Sue." Well, I hit him hard right between the eyes. And he went down, but to my surprise he came up with a knife and cut off a piece of my ear. But I busted a chair right across his teeth, and we crashed through the wall and into the street, kicking and a' gouging in the mud and the blood and the beer.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A BOY NAMED SUE")
CASH: I tell you, I've fought tougher men, but I really can't remember when. He kicked like a mule and he bit like a crocodile.
KUBRIN: We found that those people who thought that those were rap lyrics were much more likely to evaluate them negatively on all those dimensions compared to those participants in our study who thought they were country.
VEDANTAM: As a criminologist, Charis says her results are troubling.
KUBRIN: I am not necessarily advocating to not find people guilty of a crime that they've committed. What I am advocating for is the use of proper techniques and proper evidence to arrive at that decision. Right now, prosecutors are relying too heavily on a form of artistic expression that is fictional, that has a lot of artistic conventions, knowing full well that the vast majority of jurors and judges don't really know what the artistic conventions of rap music are.
The prosecutors, in this sense, are taking shortcuts. And it's at the expense of people's lives. And by the way, no other form of artistic expression is treated this way in the courts because it's not as if rock musicians and heavy metal musicians and punk musicians are having their lyrics introduced as evidence against them. This is happening only for rappers and rap music.
VEDANTAM: On October 18, 2011, in Madison County, Ill., Olutosin Oduwole's trial began. Jeffrey Urdangen says things went wrong from the start.
URDANGEN: You know, Olutosin Oduwole was a very dark-skinned Nigerian, young man whose interest was rap. And the whole defense was centered around rap. The jury was all white, overwhelmingly rural. And the average age was in the 40s and 50s. So if you put that profile together - a 50-year-old, white, rural juror trying to understand our defense, who've - none of them, if I recall, had ever listened with any frequency to rap music. Some of them did not know what it was. But this was the jury that we ended up with. And so that was a problem.
VEDANTAM: Tom Gibbons did not argue the case but supervised the attorneys who did. He believes they acted with care and caution.
GIBBONS: I wanted to make absolutely sure that we weren't using the authority of the State's Attorney's Office to prosecute somebody for their thoughts, to prosecute somebody for, in this case, rap lyrics. That's not an appropriate use of the power of a prosecutor's office and the power of law enforcement.
VEDANTAM: Again, much of the attention was focused on that piece of paper that police found in Tosin's car. Tom Gibbons says the defense argued strenuously that the writing was rap lyrics.
GIBBONS: Although, I have to tell you. One of his lawyers tried to rap the words in this note in trial, and it was a miserable failure because these are not rap lyrics.
VEDANTAM: To this comment, Tosin just shakes his head. He admits the lyrics were not very good, which is why he didn't end up using them in his song. But they were still rap.
ODUWOLE: They didn't want to tell people it was rap music. They wanted to say it was a note. So they - and they didn't show where it rhymed, where it actually rhymed. If you don't know rap music and I just give you that sentence, where can you make it rhyme? It doesn't look like a rhyme. If this account doesn't reach 50 - 50,000 in seven days, get ready for a murderous rampage similar to the VT shooting will occur at another highly-populated university, and this is not a joke.
So if you don't know rap music, you won't be able to piece that together. Majority of southern Illinois, Midwestern people that are 40, 50, 60-years-old, prosecutors, police officers, they don't know how to break down rap music or anything. So when I said, hey, that was a, like, a small piece of, like, a rap verse that we didn't even want to use, they're like, get out of here. He's lying.
VEDANTAM: After a five-day trial, the jury returned its verdict - guilty. State's Attorney Tom Gibbons.
GIBBONS: The jury convicted Mr. Oduwole. They took all the evidence into account. They deliberated for - I don't recall the amount of time, I think it was a couple of hours at least. And they returned a verdict of guilty on both counts. And he was sentenced to five years in the Department of Corrections on the attempted terrorist threat and a year in the Madison County Jail on the unauthorized possession of a weapon based on the level of the offense.
VEDANTAM: Jeffrey Urdangen says that trial was a disaster.
URDANGEN: It was a First Amendment train wreck in my view.
VEDANTAM: Jeffrey sees two flaws in the prosecution's case. First, they criminalized speech.
URDANGEN: By taking a work of art, something that was intended as a work of art, and distorted it into criminal intent.
VEDANTAM: Second, he says, they criminalized thought.
URDANGEN: By criminalizing thought, what I mean is we need to charge this man with a crime because for all we know he was thinking about acting on what we surmise were evil intents, even though we have no evidence that he intended to communicate that thought.
VEDANTAM: Tosin says his worst moment came after the trial at the Graham Correctional Center.
ODUWOLE: They strip you naked. They tell you to bend over. They make sure you don't, you know, you're not sneaking in any weapons, just a very degrading process. And then when they put me in a cell, and then they locked the door. And then you hear the clink.
And it's a small cell. It's like 5-by-9, right? There's two metal bunk beds in there. And it's you and another guy. And you just feel so claustrophobic, but you can't leave.
VEDANTAM: Tosin says it felt like being punched in the gut. Jeffrey Urdangen appealed the conviction. A year and a half later, the case came before an appellate court. The conviction for the terrorist charge was overturned. The court said in the absence of sufficient evidence that the defendant had taken a substantial step toward making a terrorist threat, his writings - as abhorrent as they might be - amount to mere thoughts.
Since Tosin's case went to trial, there have been many other cases in which rap artists have had their lyrics introduced as evidence in criminal proceedings. Criminologist Charis Kubrin.
KUBRIN: Not a lot of people know that this is happening. I don't think we quite understand the implications of using rap lyrics as evidence and what that means for defendants. Like, can they get a fair trial? Can we ensure that their First Amendment rights are protected when these lyrics have the potential to bias jurors?
VEDANTAM: When I met him at his home in New Jersey, Olutosin Oduwole was 31 years old. He says the trial, the conviction, the prison time, he's put all that behind him. But one thing still upsets him - having lyrics he considers embarrassingly bad attached to his name.
ODUWOLE: There's a lot of stuff that you will never hear, that you'll never see because I either didn't think it was good or I didn't think it would be received well. This was supposed to be one of those things that the world was never supposed to see or hear.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
VEDANTAM: Every artist, aspiring or well-established, knows what it's like to try something and then toss it aside. The drawing's askew. The photograph is blurry. The verses don't rhyme. The cutting room floor is littered with false starts and failed attempts, but these dead ends and errors are essential to the artistic process.
Tosin never ended up becoming a rap star. He's still a musician, but he's more focused now on finishing his education, launching a career in real estate and starting a family one day. Some of Tosin's work did find the spotlight. People spent hours poring over his music, analyzing his words. But like others before him, Tosin discovered that the artist doesn't always control how his creations are understood. Sometimes the stuff on the cutting room floor ends up being your legacy.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
VEDANTAM: This episode of HIDDEN BRAIN was produced by Rhaina Cohen, Jennifer Schmidt and Tara Boyle. Our team includes Maggie Penman and Renee Klahr. Original music for this episode was composed by Ramtin Arablouei. Our unsung hero this week is Mary Glendinning. Mary is a research librarian at NPR, and she played a crucial role in tracking down information for this story.
When you picture a librarian, you're probably thinking of someone who deals with books, but Mary and her team are so much more than that. They are fact checkers, detectives, masters of the archives and data experts. Thank you, Mary, and all the researchers at NPR for your hard work. I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.