Rap Lyrics Barred From Felony Retrial
(CN) - The New Jersey Supreme Court on Monday affirmed a new trial for a man whose gangster rap lyrics were used as evidence to convict him of attempted murder.
Vonte Skinner was charged in 2006 with first-degree attempted murder, for a Nov. 8, 2005 shooting that left Lamont Peterson paralyzed below the waist.
Peterson claimed Skinner shot him seven times because he owed money to a drug dealer they both worked for, according to a court-prepared Syllabus of the Aug. 4 ruling.
After the shooting, officers searched Skinner's car and found notebooks of graphically violent gangster rap lyrics, allegedly written by Skinner under the name "Real Threat."
The court allowed prosecutors to admit the lyrics into evidence but a mistrial was declared after jurors failed to reach a unanimous verdict.
During his second trial, Skinner's lyrics were read aloud to the jury, though the content of the lyrics was not specific to Peterson's shooting.
Skinner was convicted and sentenced to 30 years in prison for attempted murder, aggravated assault and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.
A New Jersey appeals court reversed, finding admission of the lyrics improper and that other evidence was available to prosecutors to determine motive and intent.
The state Supreme Court on Monday agreed and affirmed an order for retrial, finding the "prejudicial effect" of the lyrics overshadowed their value as evidence.
"The admission of defendant's inflammatory rap verses, a genre that certain members of society view as art and others view as distasteful and descriptive of a mean-spirited culture, risked poisoning the jury against defendant," the court's 41-page unanimous opinion states.
Writing for the court, Judge Jaynee LaVecchia said the panel could "detect little to no probative value to the lyrics whatsoever."
"The difficulty in identifying probative value in fictional or other forms of artistic self-expressive endeavors is that one cannot presume that, simply because an author has chosen to write about certain topics, he or she has acted in accordance with those views," the judge wrote.
LaVecchia added: "One would not presume that Bob Marley, who wrote the well-known song 'I Shot the Sheriff,' actually shot a sheriff, or that Edgar Allan Poe buried a man beneath his floorboards, as depicted in his short story 'The Tell-Tale Heart,' simply because of their respective artistic endeavors on those subjects."
Pages and pages of Skinner's gangster rap lyrics were read to the jury during trial. The court's ruling cites a few examples of the defendants' writings:
"'On the block, I can box you down or straight razor ox you down, run in your crib with the four pound and pop your crown,'" Skinner wrote. "'Checkmate, put your face in the ground. I'll drop your queen and pawn, f**k -- f**k wastin' around. They don't call me Threat for nothin'."
LaVecchia said the lyrics cited during trial were unrelated to the charges at hand.
"Had defendant in this case rapped for seven minutes about murdering a man named 'Peterson,' or described in his rap lyrics the exact manner in which Peterson was to be killed, his writings would obviously hold more probative value. But absent such a strong nexus to defendant's charged crime, his fictional expressive writings are not properly evidential," LaVecchia wrote.
The judge added that the "inflammatory contents of a person's form of artistic self-expression as proof of the writer's character, motive, or intent must be approached with caution."
LaVecchia asked trial courts to consider whether other evidence might establish motive and intent and "make the same point." Courts should redact portions that are unrelated to the specifics of a crime, the judge said.
"In conclusion, we hold that rap lyrics, or like fictional material, may not be used as evidence of motive and intent except when such material has a direct connection to the specifics of the offense for which it is offered in evidence and the evidence's probative value is not outweighed by its apparent prejudice," the judge wrote.
The ACLU of New Jersey filed an amicus brief supporting Skinner's appeal.
"The ACLU-NJ is extremely pleased that the New Jersey Supreme Court placed proper limits on the State's use of rap lyrics that have little probative value to a case, but that can highly prejudice a jury," ACLU New Jersey Legal Director Ed Barocas said in a statement. "Free expression includes the right to speak about violence or crime, whether tastefully presented or otherwise."