First Amendment

Should violent rap lyrics be admissible in a criminal trial? New Jersey supremes to decide


The New Jersey Supreme Court will consider next week whether violent rap lyrics written by a criminal defendant should be admissible in his trial for attempted murder.

Vonte Skinner contends the lyrics should not have been allowed into evidence at his 2008 trial for the shooting, according to a New York Times op-ed by two professors who have testified as expert witnesses in such cases. A New Jersey appeals court agreed with Skinner in 2012, spurring the state’s appeal.

The op-ed offers an example of Skinner’s lyrics, “In the hood, I am a threat / It’s written on my arm and signed in blood on my Tech,” he wrote, referring to a Tec-9 handgun. “I’m in love with you, death.”

An amicus brief (PDF) by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey says there is no evidence Skinner committed any of the bad acts he wrote about, and his lyrics were written months if not years before the shooting. There is no more reason to ascribe a motive and intent to commit bad acts to Skinner because of his lyrics than to “indict Johnny Cash for having ‘shot a man in Reno just to watch him die,’ ” the brief says.

The brief asks the state supreme court to adopt evidentiary guidelines that will protect a criminal defendant’s artistic expression.

The Supreme Court of Nevada upheld the admissibility of rap lyrics this summer in a murder case. A contrary ruling by the New Jersey Supreme Court could help turn the tide, according to the Times op-ed by University of Richmond liberal arts professor Erik Nielson and University of California at Irvine criminology professor Charis Kubrin.

“As expert witnesses who have testified in such cases, we have observed firsthand how prosecutors misrepresent rap music to judges and juries,” according to Neilson and Kubrin.

“Even when defendants use a stage name to signal their creation of a fictional first-person narrator, rap about exploits that are exaggerated to the point of absurdity, and make use of figurative language, prosecutors will insist that the lyrics are effectively rhymed confessions,” the op-ed says. “No other form of fictional expression is exploited this way in the courts.”

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