EDWARDSVILLE, Ill. — An aspiring rapper on trial over what authorities say was a note threatening a Virginia Tech-like killing spree set off "alarm bells" days before the writings surfaced on his college campus by pressing to get firepower he ordered from a gun dealer, a prosecutor told jurors Wednesday.
But an attorney for Olutosin Oduwole countered during a trial's opening statements in the 4-year-old case that his gun-loving client stood wrongly accused, saying the words at issue were innocent lyrics and other musings by a performer prone to compulsively log all of his thoughts on paper.
"This case is a very selective case," Justin Kuehn said on behalf of Oduwole, accused of attempting to make a terroristic threat and a weapons count linked to the loaded handgun police found a short time later in July 2007 in Oduwole's on-campus apartment at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville.
"That `note' is nothing more than a piece of scrap paper with private thoughts, the beginning of a song," Kuehn insisted. "Their key piece of evidence, the center point of their case, is a song."
Wednesday's differing scenarios by the prosecutors and defense previewed testimony that could leave jurors with a key decision: Whether Oduwole's questioned writings – found in his out-of-gas car just months after the Virginia Tech rampage that left 32 people dead along with the gunman – represented something potentially sinister or were lyrical stylings that were constitutionally protected free speech.
Kuehn told the all-white jury that witnesses on Oduwole's behalf may include what the defense describes as an expert in the study of rap and hip-hop music, along with that genre's culture.
The trial's stakes are high: Oduwole, 26 and free on bond, faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted of the threat-related count.
Oduwole was a student at the 13,000-student Edwardsville campus northeast of St. Louis when campus police found in his disabled car that they impounded a piece of paper that demanded 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!"
While referencing the Virginia Tech massacre, the writing did not make any direct reference to targeting the Edwardsville campus.
Even before that discovery, prosecutor Jim Buckley told jurors, Oduwole already was being scrutinized by federal agents tipped off earlier that month by a gun dealer that the student appeared overly anxious to get four semiautomatic weapons – including an Uzi-like Mac 10 – that he had ordered.
"Where are my guns? I need my guns now," Buckley said the dealer, who sensed "something's weird here," reported Oduwole as repeatedly pressing. "Alarm bells are going off all over the place, and they were set in motion by the defendant's actions."
Authorities who later searched Oduwole's impounded car found seven bullets along with the alleged note, then the loaded, .25-caliber pistol in his apartment, a bullet in the gun's chamber.
Kuehn, Oduwole's attorney, portrayed his client as a "pretty good" rapper who never meant for the questioned writing to be seen, illustrated by the fact that police didn't find it on the car's dashboard or taped to the windshield but instead crumpled between a front seat and a console of his 2001 Ford Taurus.
Kuehn also said Oduwole dabbled with buying guns to resell them as a hobby with friends, going through legal channels – not the underground market – that was certain to leave an easily traceable paper trail.
"It's about the most open way, the most visible way" to buy a gun, Kuehn said near Oduwole. During much of the opening statements Oduwole jotted down notes from the defense table, where he sat dressed in a yellow-and-blue striped sweater over a light blue dress shirt, along with cream-colored pants.