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Art or evidence? After appeal, court rules violent rap lyrics not a confession

August 9, 2014 at 12:59 PM EST
In a ruling that could have national implications, the New Jersey State Supreme Court unanimously agreed that Vonte Skinner's rap lyrics should not have been admitted at a murder trial, ruling that those graphic lyrics weren't sufficient evidence to prove a confession. NewsHour's William Brangham reports.
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TRANSCRIPT

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Back in 2005, outside this New Jersey house, a small-time drug dealer was shot multiple times and left near death by the curb. While his story changed a few times, he’d later tell police that the man who shot him was this man: aspiring rapper and fellow drug dealer Vonte Skinner.

Though Skinner says he’s innocent – he admits he was there that night, but says he didn’t pull the trigger, and doesn’t know who did — he was arrested and charged with attempted murder.

At his trial, prosecutors had 13 pages of Skinner’s extremely graphic, violent rap lyrics read aloud to the jury. They were from notebooks found in the back of a car Skinner was driving.

Here’s just a taste of what the jury heard: “Two to your helmet and four slugs drillin’ your cheek/To blow your face off and leave your brain caved in the street…”

It went on like that for more than 15 minutes.

The lyrics don’t mention anything about the specific shooting, or the actual victim. They were in fact written months and years before the crime occurred, but prosecutors introduced them – and a judge allowed them – in order to demonstrate Skinner’s alleged motive and intent to commit violent acts.

Amar Dean is a Philadelphia-based rap producer, and Vonte Skinner’s brother. He says he was in the courtroom when the lyrics were read to the jury, and just by watching their reaction to those lyrics, he knew his brother was going to be convicted.

AMAR DEAN: When they started doing the lyrics, people started frowning their faces. You know, body language speaks volumes. A lot of their faces were in shock, “whoa, did he say that, did he do that?” But it had nothing to do with the case at all.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Skinner was found guilty of attempted murder, and sentenced to 30 years in prison.

This trend — of introducing rap lyrics as evidence in criminal proceedings — is spreading nationwide.

There are some cases — like Dennis Greene’s case, where the connection between a rap and a crime is clear. In 2003, Greene brutally killed his wife, and then he rapped specifically about committing the murder. The lyrics were introduced at trial, and he was sentenced to life in prison.

But other cases, they just aren’t as clear cut.

Two years ago in Louisiana, a rapper named Terrance Hatch — known as Lil Boosie — was tried for first degree murder. Prosecutors argued that a few cryptic words of one rap song were in fact a confession. Hatch was found not guilty.

ERIK NIELSON: What prosecutors have found is that when they can introduce rap lyrics as evidence, particularly in situations where they don’t have strong evidence otherwise, they are still able to secure convictions.

To critics like Erik Nielson of the University of Richmond — prosecutors should rarely, if ever, use rap as evidence in court. Nielson says rap is an art form — one that intentionally uses elaborate word-play and exaggeration and boasting. And yes, while rap may sometimes contains graphic violence, Nielson argues that’s a reflection of the communities where many young black men live. He says rappers are creating characters, not writing diaries.

ERIK NIELSON: That is the most important distinction that constantly gets missed, is that there is an author and a narrator. We seem to be able to grasp that concept with every other art form that uses the first person narrative. But rappers, who go the extra mile to signal that they are inventing a narrator with their use of a stage name, we still revert back to this idea that they’re the same, we conflate the two.

David Labahn — who is a former gang prosecutor, and CEO of the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys — believes rap lyrics can be a very appropriate tool for law enforcement because he says they’re not always ‘made-up’ stories.

DAVID LABAHN: I would say you can’t have it both ways. You cannot say that “I’m rapping about stuff because this is what I live in, this is what I see every day” and then come into court and say “everything that I said in that rap is completely untrue.”

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: What about the argument that is made that the content of some kinds of rap music is so violent, that if you put that in front of a jury, and if the prosecution says “this guy raps like this, and we think he’s guilty of x,” that the jury will believe anything.

DAVID LABAHN: I don’t think that matches reality of what happens in a courtroom. We must get a unanimous jury beyond a reasonable doubt, and playing a rap is not going to convict somebody. We must get a unanimous jury beyond a reasonable doubt. And playing a rap is not going to convict somebody. If it was then you’d have rap being played every day and we wouldn’t need to worry about producing other evidence.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: But in the case of Vonte Skinner, at least, an appellate court in 2012 ruled that the extensive reading of his lyrics did unfairly prejudice the jury and made it so Skinner could not get a fair trial. That ruling threw skinner’s case to the New Jersey State Supreme Court.

Skinner’s original prosecutors — who declined to speak with the NewsHour — testified before the court why they introduced skinner’s written lyrics at trial.

JENNIFER PASZKIEWICZ: The defendant’s writings reference how he saw himself, either hypothetically or otherwise, reference a number of things that all go to the issue of what ultimately happened in this case.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Prosecutor Jennifer Paskiewicz argued that because Skinner wrote lyrics about things like shooting people in the head, that this was evidence of a quote “continuing mindset” that helped explained why skinner could’ve committed the actual shooting.

Among those testifying in favor of Skinner was Ezra Rosenberg. He was representing the New Jersey ACLU.

EZRA ROSENBERG: When I first read Mr. Skinner’s writings, they were, they make one hold one’s breath. They are extraordinarily violent, they are sexist, they are misogynistic. They’re also very creative.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Rosenberg argued that yes, Skinner’s lyrics are offensive, but they’re artistic works. And, he says, rap — like filmmaking or literature or art — should be given greater First Amendment protections before being allowed into trials. If not, he worries about a chilling effect on free expression.

EZRA ROSENBERG: Every writing is subject to first amendment protections because there are social and political concerns that rap lyrics, gangster rap in particular, address, they are entitled to the highest protections. That’s really key.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: More so than other art forms or forms of expression?

EZRA ROSENBERG: Absolutely.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: On Monday — in a ruling that could have national implications — the New Jersey State Supreme Court unanimously agreed that Vonte Skinner’s rap lyrics should not have been admitted at trial, ruling that those graphic lyrics quote “bore little or no probative value” as evidence, and they risked quote “poisoning the jury.”

In their ruling, the justices also criticized prosecutors for linking Skinner’s lyrics with Skinner’s actions: 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. 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.”

With his conviction overturned, Skinner will now get a new trial. In the meantime, he remains in jail where he’s been for several years.