Defendant's 'disturbing' rap lyrics should not have been admitted at trial, NJ high court says

The New Jersey Supreme Court has ruled that violent rap lyrics should not have been admitted in the attempted murder trial of Vonte Skinner, who was accused of shooting a fellow drug dealer seven times.

The court affirmed the reversal of Skinner’s conviction in an opinion (PDF) released on Tuesday, report the Courier-Post, the New Jersey Star-Ledger and NorthJersey.com.

“We hold that the violent, profane, and disturbing rap lyrics authored by defendant constituted highly prejudicial evidence against him,” the court said.

The opinion said that “fictional forms of inflammatory self-expression” should not be admitted as evidence unless there is a “a strong nexus” between the writing and the circumstances of the alleged offense, and the probative value outweighs the apparent prejudicial impact.

The victim told police that Skinner shot him because the victim owed money to their drug boss; Skinner claims he was at the scene but fled when he heard shots fired, and the actual shooter had an ongoing dispute with the victim.

Prosecutors contended the lyrics showed Skinner’s motive and willingness to use violence. The state argued there was no prejudice because violent rap music is so prevalent that jurors would not be inflamed by Skinner’s compositions.

The opinion includes some excerpts that were read to the jury, including this one: “I’m the n***a to drive-by and tear your block up, leave you, your homey and neighbors shot up, chest, shots will have you spittin’ blood clots up. Go ahead and play hard. I’ll have you in front of heaven prayin’ to God, body parts displaying the scars, puncture wounds and bones blown apart, showin’ your heart full of black marks, thinkin’ you already been through hell.”

Some of the lyrics read to the jury also depicted rape and other violent treatment of women, though the case did not involve violence against women.

The court said it saw little probative value in Skinner’s lyrics. “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,” the court said. “Defendant’s lyrics should receive no different treatment.”

Prosecutors plan to retry Skinner, according to the Courier-Post.

Hat tip to @MikeScarcella.

Prior coverage:

ABAJournal.com: “Do rapper’s lyrics support conviction? ACLU cites Johnny Cash song, says lower court was wrong”

ABAJournal.com: “Should violent rap lyrics be admissible in a criminal trial? New Jersey supremes to decide”

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