New Jersey court strikes down murder conviction based on violent rap lyrics

BY Saskia de Melker and William Brangham  August 9, 2014 at 12:21 PM EDT


The New Jersey State Supreme Court on Monday overturned, by a vote of 6-0, the attempted murder conviction of an aspiring rapper and small-time drug dealer Vonte Skinner, arguing that the extensive reading of Skinner’s violent rap lyrics during his trial unfairly prejudiced the jury.

As the PBS NewsHour reported last month, rap lyrics are increasingly being used by prosecutors nationwide as evidence of motive or intent, or in some cases, treated as confessions to specific crimes. Some legal scholars alarmed by this trend argue that rap lyrics are largely fictional, artistic works, and introducing their sometimes violent and graphic content at trial unfairly taints juries.

That’s exactly what the New Jersey State Supreme Court ruled happened in Vonte Skinner’s case.

In its ruling, the Court stated that Skinner’s rap lyrics had little connection to the case at hand and their introduction risked “poisoning the jury.” The Court wrote “…the violent, profane, and disturbing rap lyrics authored by defendant constitute highly prejudicial evidence against him that bore little or no probative value as to any motive or intent behind the attempted murder offense with which he was charged.

Skinner had been charged with trying to kill a fellow drug dealer named Lamont Peterson in 2008. While Skinner admitted he was present the night Peterson was shot, he claims he didn’t pull the trigger and doesn’t know who did.

The legal case against him hinged primarily on two eyewitnesses who claimed Skinner was the shooter, though their stories changed several times. At trial, the prosecution had a police officer on the stand read thirteen pages of Skinner’s rap lyrics to the jury. (The lyrics had been discovered in a series of notebooks in the backseat of the car Skinner was driving at the time of his arrest.)

The lyrics don’t mention the actual crime or the victim — in fact, they were largely written months and years before the shooting. They graphically depict a world of violence, murder, and gang life, with lyrics like: “Two to your helmet and four slugs drillin’ your cheek, to blow your face off and leave your brain caved in the street.”

The Supreme Court’s ruling, which upheld a prior Appellate Court’s overturning of Skinner’s conviction, argued that rap lyrics were in fact “fictional material” and shouldn’t be allowed as evidence in cases unless the lyrics had a “direct connection” to the specifics of the case.

Jason Coe, the public defender who handled Skinner’s appeal before the Supreme Court, lauded today’s ruling. He told the PBS NewsHour: “The court reached the correct result because the defendant’s writings had no connection to the charged offenses because their admission served no purpose other than to prejudice the jury.”

“The opinion represents a strong victory for free expression,” says lawyer Ezra Rosenberg, who represented the New Jersey ACLU before the Supreme Court. Rosenberg argued that rap lyrics are artistic works and deserve First Amendment protections, and he believes this ruling will force prosecutors and courts across the country to reconsider allowing rap lyrics at trial. “It will make it very difficult in the future for courts to admit works of artistic expression, and especially those of social commentary such as rap lyrics, on the basis of vague notions of motive unconnected to the facts of the crime charged.”

Burlington County, New Jersey, prosecutor Robert Bernardi, who’s office prosecuted Skinner and won the original conviction, said his office was ready to retry Skinner for attemped murder. In a statement to the NewsHour, Bernardi said: “We appreciate the Court’s direction going forward on the use of such lyrics. This decision provides guidance to all New Jersey prosecutors who contemplate the use of such evidence in the future.”