Shyne Becomes Moses, Challenges New York's 'Son Of Sam' Law

Rapper's lawyers attempt to gain access to a $500,000 advance on his recording contract.

Things are changing for Bad Boy Records rapper Jamal "Shyne" Barrow. First, the former Diddy protégé changed his name on Saturday to Moses Michael Leviy, in honor of his Jewish heritage.

And on Tuesday (March 7), lawyers for the MC — who is serving a 10-year prison sentence for his role in a 1999 shooting at Club New York (see "Shyne Sentenced To 10 Years In Prison") — were in court hoping to change the way New York applies its "Son of Sam" law. The law prevents inmates from profiting from art they create that is related to their crimes.

"We asked the judge in the case to lift the 'Son of Sam' stay on a $500,000 advance from Island Def Jam and to release additional funds to pay his entertainment lawyers so they can continue to pursue other recording deals," said one of Shyne's lawyers, Oscar Michelen. "We're saying it's in his best interest to sign as many deals as possible while in jail if [the three plaintiffs in a pending civil trial who are suing the rapper for injuries from the shooting] want a larger pool of funds to draw from if they get a settlement."

In November 2004, a judge granted a preliminary injunction that froze all of Shyne's assets until after the civil trial. That freeze included the $500,000 advance Shyne got as part of a now-terminated five-album deal with Island Def Jam. A judge released $100,000 to Shyne to cover legal fees and family expenses in 2004, but the injunction barred the rapper from tapping into any more money (see "Judge Freezes Shyne's Assets Until Civil Suits Are Settled"). The victims later asked the court to hold Shyne in contempt for spending an additional $85,000 on lawyers' fees and to support his mother and grandmother.

Michelen is trying to convince the court that New York's "Son of Sam" law is unconstitutional in Shyne's case and that an exception should be made for the MC.

The "Sam" law was created in New York after the infamous Son of Sam killings in the late 1970s in order to prevent serial killer David Berkowitz from selling his story to publishers for a huge sum and profiting from his crimes, and to protect victims of crimes by locking down any assets that might be awarded in a civil lawsuit. It was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1991, but is still in use in an updated form that bans all income a convicted felon receives from any source. "We are arguing that money earned from labors is not covered by the law," Michelen said.

On Tuesday morning Michelen made his first attempt to test the law. The hearing on the motions has been continued until March 20.

When he goes to court in two weeks, the lawyer said he will argue that Shyne should not be held in contempt because the extra $85,000 he spent was from the publishing rights to his songs, not the Island Def Jam deal covered under the judge's order. He will also test the "Sam" law in a way he said has never been done before, by arguing that it is unconstitutional because it interferes with Shyne's right to have an attorney. "Our point is that while the law intends to compensate the victims, a person's right to have an attorney supersedes that, and those funds should be used to pay his past and current lawyers and allow him to try to get back in the record business," Michelen said.

In the meantime, Shyne's appeal for a new trial was turned down last year, but Michelen said it is now winding its way to a possible hearing before the New York Court of Appeals.

As for the name change, Michelen said that Shyne, whose grandmother is an Ethiopian Jew, has long been a practicing Jew, but that he was spurred to give himself a Jewish name by a recent incident in prison. "He attended a Jewish service by a rabbi employed by the New York [State] Department of Corrections who would not let him attend the service because he said he didn't know if he was a real Jew," Michelen said. "That offended him, and he made the decision to change his name so there won't be any misunderstanding about his religion."

Mike Fraser, a spokesperson at New York State's Department of Corrections, confirmed that Shyne has been participating in Jewish services at the Clinton Correctional Facility in upstate New York and that the department "does what it can to extend as much spiritual assistance as possible" to inmates. But Fraser said he could not comment on any incident that may have inspired the name change.

As the various appeals and cases continue to wind their way through the system, Michelen said Shyne keeps writing new rhymes, none having to do with the crime that landed him behind bars. "He's got sheaves of material, and it's about much deeper issues," the lawyer said. "He recognizes that if he wrote directly about the incident that would be covered by the ['Son of Sam'] law. He's got a lot to say that has nothing to do with that and talks about his prison experience."