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UPDATED August 4, 2014: The New Jersey State Supreme Court overturned Skinner’s attempted murder conviction. Read the full update here.
Before he turned to the criminal life, Vonte Skinner was an aspiring rapper. His younger brother Amar Dean remembers him having stacks of notebooks full of lyrics, poems and artwork.
“He draws. He writes music, writes poetry,” Dean said. “He’s really good with his hands, his emotions come out through his pencil.”
But those notebooks would play a prominent role in incriminating Skinner years later.
By 2005, Skinner had become a small-time drug dealer in central New Jersey. He was charged with attempted murder for the shooting of a fellow dealer named Lamont Peterson.
While Skinner admitted to police he was present the night Peterson was shot (he says he was there to buy drugs from him), he claims he didn’t pull the trigger and doesn’t know who did.
The case against Skinner hinged primarily on two eyewitnesses who claimed he was the shooter, though their stories had changed several times. Near the end of the 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 notebooks in the car Skinner was driving at the time of his arrest.
The lyrics don’t mention anything about the actual crime or the victims. In fact, they were largely written months and years before the shooting. The prosecution introduced them at trial to demonstrate Skinner’s motive and intent to commit violent acts.
And the lyrics are violent. They graphically depict a world of murder, thugs and gang life:
Two to your helmet and four slugs drillin’ your cheek
to blow your face off and leave your brain caved in the street…
Dean was in the courtroom when his brother’s lyrics were read to the jury.
“When they started doing the lyrics, people started frowning their faces. You know, your body language speaks volumes,” Dean said. “A lot of their faces were in shock, like, ‘whoa, did he say that? Did he do that?’ Even though that had nothing to do with the case.”
Skinner was found guilty and sentenced to thirty years in prison.
His case is at the heart of a debate over whether rap lyrics should be used as evidence in criminal trials.
Across the country, police and prosecutors have increasingly been using a suspect’s own lyrics to help establish motive or intent to commit a crime. In some cases, prosecutors allege these lyrics contain confessions.
But critics argue that rap music is just music. And they argue that reading or playing lurid, violent rap in trials will unfairly prejudice a jury.
David LaBahn, CEO of the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, said rap lyrics can often shed light on a particular crime and its perpetrator, but it’s a case-by-case analysis of whether a given set of lyrics is appropriate to introduce into court.
“When something occurs and that rap matches the crime, it’s going to be real hard in a criminal court to try to attempt on behalf of the defense to exclude it,” LaBahn said. “On behalf of prosecutors, if it’s matching, that would very much be another piece of evidence that we would like to admit to the case .”
Critics contend rap is a musical art form that should not be taken as evidence of criminal behavior. But some prosecutors say they don’t buy the argument that the work is all fiction. NewsHour Weekend reports.
Skinner challenged the rap’s value as evidence versus its prejudicial effect on his trial.
In 2012, the New Jersey Appellate Court said lyrics never should have been admitted because they were written months and possibly years before the shooting. Skinner’s conviction was overturned.
In their decision, the judges said they had “a significant doubt about whether the jurors would have found defendant guilty if they had not been required to listen to the extended reading of these disturbing and highly prejudicial lyrics.”
Now the New Jersey Supreme Court will decide whether Skinner should get a new trial.
The State’s prosecutors testified to the Court that Skinner spoke about shooting people in the head in his lyrics and that this was evidence of a “continuing mindset” that could explain why he committed the crime.
The prosecutors declined our request for an interview or comment on the case.
Among those testifying on Skinner’s behalf was Ezra Rosenberg, a lawyer representing the New Jersey ACLU.
“When I first read Mr. Skinner’s writings, they make one hold one’s breath,” he said. “They are extraordinarily violent, they are sexist, they are misogynistic. They’re also very creative.”
Rosenberg said while Skinner’s lyrics are offensive, they are artistic works. The ACLU believes there should be tougher standards for admitting rap — like filmmaking or literature — into trials because of the First Amendment. If not, Rosenberg said he worries about a chilling effect on free expression.
“Every writing is subject to First Amendment protections. 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.”
The New Jersey State Supreme Court is expected to rule on Skinner’s case within the next few months.
William Brangham is a correspondent and producer for PBS NewsHour in Washington, D.C. He joined the flagship PBS program in 2015, after spending two years with PBS NewsHour Weekend in New York City.
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