Does the fact that you can imagine a gruesome murder scene actually mean that you have the “motive and intent” to murder someone?
The answer to that question could decide the fate of Vonte Skinner, who is facing an attempted murder charge in New Jersey. Among the evidence being brought against him are 13 pages of lyrics that were found by police in a car he was driving at the time. The court says he potentially wrote the lyrics years before the alleged crime ever took place.
Final arguments in the case are being heard this week by the New Jersey Supreme Court. The decision will be released in the coming days.
Skinner was arrested after a shooting in 2005, and found guilty of attempted murder in 2008. He got 30 years in prison, but the conviction was overturned in 2012 by an appellate court who said that the lyrics should never have been admitted as evidence for the trial.
Here is an annotated sample of the lyrics, taken from Rap Genius :
Read “Lyrics Used as Evidence in Trial” by Vonte Skinner on News Genius
The New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which has taken up the case, argued in an amicus curiae briefing filed last year that these lyrics, while they can be considered “repugnant,” are clearly an example of “Mr. Skinner’s social and political commentary on impoverished black neighborhoods in our inner cities.”
As such, they argue, the lyrics should be subject to First Amendment protection. Furthermore, none of the lyrics draw a direct connection with the case at hand, something that the ACLU says would be necessary in this case.
Furthermore, there is a large lack of physical evidence in the case, aside from a cell phone owned by Skinner that was found on the street near the shooting, along with other phones. The victim also couldn’t provide convincing testimony against Skinner, according to the opinion of the appeals court where his charge was overturned.
“We have a significant doubt 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,” the opinion read.
This isn’t the first time rap lyrics have been used to bolster the arguments of prosecutors.
An analysis by the ACLU in the same brief stated that in similar cases in other states, rap lyrics were admitted as evidence in 14 of 18 cases.
Last year, the Nevada Supreme Court concluded that rap lyrics are admissible in the courtroom after they were used to convict a man of first-degree murder. In that case, however, it appears that the lyrics (written in jail, after the fact) actually described details of the crime.
While lyrics have proven useful in that case, there is pushback from critics who say that in most cases, a line has been crossed.
“It makes me very uncomfortable that prosecutors are using fictional writings as evidence against defendants in criminal cases,” wrote Justin Peters in a piece for Slate last year. “And it makes me even more uncomfortable that they seem to be doing so disproportionately in cases involving young black men.”
For someone entirely uninitiated in the culture, it might be easy to confuse the art for the artist, argued a New York Times op-ed earlier this year from an expert witness in many rap-lyric cases. “It becomes easier still when that art reinforces stereotypes about young men of color — who are almost exclusively the defendants in these cases — as violent, hypersexual and dangerous.”
“If that’s what jurors see,” the op-ed asked, “what are the chances for a fair trial?”
Under the current New Jersey court rules, the fact that Skinner wrote the lyrics would be classified as a “bad act,” and thus something admissible to evidence.
“Are you suggesting that the act of writing lyrics is itself a crime or a bad act?” Justice Jaynee LaVecchia asked the prosecution arguing to uphold the original verdict this week.
When the appeal court reaches its decision in the coming days, courts across the country will have a better chance of fairly answering that question.
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.