Johnny Cash’s “Cocaine Blues” Leaves Much To Be Desired (Legally, Anyway)

As you know, we here at Abnormal Use love to write about the intermingling of music and the law.  Well, some of us, anyway.  Aside from our interview with singer-songwriter Chuck Brodsky and a satirical review of a legal themed concept album, you won’t catch me writing anything music related.  It’s not that I don’t enjoy music.  I do.  I just fail to see the excitement of legal references in popular music.

While traveling to a deposition recently,  the song “Cocaine Blues” (written by others but performed and made famous by Johnny Cash) came on the radio, and I realized right then why writing about legal music is not my forte.  The writers of pop music butcher our legal system worse than television’s David E. Kelley.  “Cocaine Blues” is about a man who becomes high on cocaine and shoots his wife after discovering she had committed adultery.  This is not unusual subject matter for an outlaw country song.  Where the song falters legally, however, is the song’s portrayal of the repercussions of the man’s illegal actions.

The morning after committing the crime, the man flees to Mexico.  Shortly after his arrival, he is apprehended by his hometown sheriff. He then freely confesses to his crime.  Thereafter, the man is immediately transported back to the United States.  Because the song was written by Red Arnall in 1947, it would be another 20 years before Miranda rights became an issue.  But, how does a sheriff from Jericho Hill so easily avoid any extradition procedures?  I doubt the Mexican government had an open door policy for small town American police departments.

For the sake of musicality, I can forgive the logistical problems of the man’s extradition.  What happens next, however, is indefensible.  The following morning, a mere three days after the crime, the man is up for trial!  Criminal defendants are entitled to a speedy trial under the Sixth Amendment, but even our founding fathers are asking for a reprieve with this one.  No indictment?  No discovery?  Don’t expect the prosecutor to be trying this one on the merits.  Whatever the case presented, the jury was convinced.  After a five minute deliberation, the jury found the man guilty of first degree murder.

The verdict itself is a bit of a misnomer.  The lyrics do not give us any evidence of the premeditation necessary for first degree murder.  I am sure the man’s lawyer – if he even had one – attempted to portray the murder as a crime of passion.  His wife was cheating on him with five guys after all.  We just do not know if he caught her in the act.  Simply put, the song lacks too many details to make an appropriate legal analysis.

It is difficult for any songwriter to cram enough detail into a three minute song to satisfy a lawyer.  I can’t appreciate the lyrics and the melody if I have to check a hornbook to validate the song’s accuracy.  With that said, Johnny Cash remains one of my favorites.  He was arrested and detained enough times to have some credibility when singing about prisons.  Just don’t expect to see me writing about it – again.