Next week, the New Jersey Supreme Court will consider whether the violent rap lyrics of a criminal defendant should be admissible in his trial for attempted Murder.
Vonte Skinner, the defendant in a 2008 trial for his involvement in a 2005 shooting had 13 pages of lyrics read allowed by the prosecution that were composed before the shooting. The lyrics also did not mention the victim or specific details of the crime.
In 2012, Skinner’s conviction was overturned by an appellate court that ruled the lyrics shouldn’t have been admissible in the trial. That majority opinion stated, “We have a significant doubt about 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 state would later appeal the ruling and send it to the New Jersey Supreme Court.
Aside from his lyrics, evidence in the ’08 trial was largely based on testimony from several witnesses who changed their stories multiple times. Skinner was later found guilty for attempted murder and sentenced to three decades in prison.
Skinner’s case and recent attention around the matter of rap lyrics in court cases was brought about in a recent New York Times op-ed that stated his case is not the first. In 2013, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey found that in 18 cases in which courts considered the admissibility of rap related content as evidence, lyrics were allowed in nearly 80 percent of the cases. They also say there is no evidence Skinner committed any of the criminal acts he wrote about.
The NY Times opinion piece goes on to argue that no other form of fictional expression is used or exploited in court and often times the prosecution presents lyrics as an autobiography of the defendant.
Last summer, the Supreme Court of Nevada upheld the admissibility of rap lyrics as evidence in a first-degree murder case. On occasion, appellate courts have reversed convictions after citing that prosecution misrepresented the lyrics as evidence.