New Jersey Supreme Court finds rap lyrics 'highly prejudicial' to defendant

[JURIST] The New Jersey Supreme Court [official website] on Monday upheld an appellate court decision granting a new trial [opinion, PDF] for a defendant whose rap lyrics were introduced against him in an attempted murder trial. Vonte Skinner was convicted in 2008 of shooting his associate Lamont Peterson seven times, causing Peterson's paralysis. Among the evidence introduced against Skinner were rap lyrics he had written in a notebook prior to the shooting depicting "violence, bloodshed, death, maiming, and dismemberment." Writing for a unanimous Supreme Court, Justice Jaynee LaVecchia called the lyrics "highly prejudicial" evidence with "little or no probative value." The court analogized Skinner's expression to more famous works:

The difficulty in identifying probative value in fictional or other forms of artistic self-expressive endeavors is that one cannot presume that, simply because an author has chosen to write about certain topics, he or she has acted in accordance with those views. 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. Defendant’s lyrics should receive no different treatment.
The court cautioned trial courts to consider whether other admissible evidence could be used "to make the same point" as the self-expression proposed to be offered into evidence, and to redact "irrelevant, inflammatory content" that could prejudice jurors.

Last month a Newport News, Virginia court found Antwain "Twain Gotti" Steward guilty of two firearms charges for which he was identified as a suspect based partially on the content of his lyrics [Daily Press reports]. In June a federal jury in New York convicted [NYT report] aspiring rapper Ronald "Ra Diggs" Herron on charges including murder after a trial in which Herron's rap videos were admitted into evidence. Also in June the US Supreme Court [official website] agreed to hear Elonis v. United States [JURIST report] in order to rule on whether "conviction of threatening another person requires proof of the defendant's subjective intent to threaten,... or whether it is enough to show that a 'reasonable person' would regard the statement as threatening[.]" Anthony Elonis was convicted under 18 U.S.C. § 875(c) [text] for posting threatening statements on his Facebook page, often in the form of rap lyrics.

 

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