Courts Are Allowing Rap Lyrics as Evidence in Criminal Trials
By Scott T. Sterling
Notice to the rappers of the world: be careful what you write about, it could have you behind bars instead of penning them—even if the lyrics have no direct correlation to the alleged crime.
A recent op-ed in the New York Times points out how one Vonte Skinner was convicted in a New Jersey courtroom of attempted murder of a rival drug dealer in large part based on extremely violent rap lyrics he’d written. The lyrics were found in his girlfriend’s car when he was arrested in 2005 for “allegedly shooting Lamont Peterson multiple times at close range.”
In 2012, a New Jersey state court of appeals was moved to overturn the 30-year conviction on the grounds that entering the lyrics (13 pages worth that were read out loud to the jury) as evidence was “highly prejudicial,” resulting in Skinner getting a new trial.
Admittedly, the lyrics are extremely violent, painting a portrait of a cold-blooded killer, although they were written well before the incident and have no relation to Peterson:
“Two to your helmet and four slugs drillin’ your cheek to blow your face off and leave your brain caved in the street — the seat. I play with fire like pyros and gasoline, so, come test one. I hope your brain got a rhino vest on. Death is your final step, Dawg, ain’t nothin’ sweet here, everywhere I go, I got my heat.”
As noted by Business Insider, the conviction was overturned due to insufficient evidence, leading to the new trial, but as the ACLU of New Jersey points out, there have been 18 cases at courts around the country that considered rap lyrics as evidence, with the lyrics being allowed nearly 80 percent of the time.
As the NYT op-ed points out, this practice of appointing art to real life seems to be exclusive to hip-hop, as Johnny Cash never had to defend writing about shooting a man “just to watch him die” (“Folsom Prison Blues”) or Brett Easton Ellis for his graphic portrayal of a psychopathic killer in his book, American Psycho.
“That the trial judge allowed the prosecution to use gangsta rap lyrics as evidence of ‘motive and intent,’ which to any reasonably thoughtful person is code for propensity and negative character evidence, is inexplicable,” wrote the defending attorneys (via Simple Justice). “Highly prejudicial and without any real probative value, even the appellate court in New Jersey couldn’t stomach its use. Skinner’s conviction was reversed.”
The New Jersey Supreme Court is expected to hear the new case next week.