N.J. Court: Rap Lyrics Introduced at Trial Were Prejudicial

New Jersey Supreme Court: “One would not presume that Bob Marley, who wrote the well-known song ‘I Shot the Sheriff,’ actually shot a sheriff.”

The New Jersey State Supreme Court ruled yesterday that rap lyrics introduced at a defendant’s murder trial were prejudicial and should not have been allowed into evidence. The N.J. Supreme Court upheld an appellate court’s ruling that reversed the conviction.

The case stems from the November 8, 2005, shooting of Lamont Peterson. Peterson was hit seven times in the back, torso and head, and told police on the way to the hospital that Vonte Skinner shot him. While searching Skinner’s car, police found several notebooks of rap lyrics — many of which included violent themes. The lyrics were read at Skinner’s first trial, which ended in a mistrial when the jury couldn’t reach a verdict.

The defense objected to the introduction of the lyrics before Skinner’s retrial, but a court again ruled them admissible. Skinner’s rap handle was apparently Real Threat; he has a “Threat” tattoo. “At the second trial, a detective testifying for the State read extensively from defendant’s lyrics to the jury,” the Supreme Court wrote in its opinion. “The trial transcript of that uninterrupted reading stretches thirteen pages. The material was replete with expletives and included graphic depictions of violence, bloodshed, death, maiming, and dismemberment.”

But the court says those lyrics weren’t affiliated with the alleged crimes.

Those verses, along with several more pages not reproduced here, plainly depict various crimes and other bad acts, but those crimes and acts were unconnected to the specific facts of the attempted-murder charge against defendant. The State did not attempt to clarify or explain the lyrics in any way, despite their heavy use of slang and otherwise esoteric language. […]

Defendant reportedly has composed rap lyrics as a form of self-expression since he was a child. In fact, the record reveals evidence that some of defendant’s work had been produced in connection with a rap music label. Although it is not clear when each individual verse of the lyrics found in defendant’s notebooks was written, the State concedes that many of the lyrics found in defendant’s car and read to the jury were composed long before the circumstances underlying the instant offense took place.

The court ruled 6-0, with one judge abstaining. The court also compared Skinner’s lyrics to those of writers a bit more famous.

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. 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.

Skinner had been sentenced to 30 years in prison. Read the full opinion of the court below.

New Jersey v. Skinner