Wednesday, August 6, 2014

New Jersey High Court Distinguishes Rap Lyrics From Evidence of Guilt


I’m the n***a to drive-by and tear your block up, leave you, your homey and neighbors shot up, chest, shots will have you spittin’ blood clots up.

New Jersey prosecutors used these lyrics and even more inflammatory ones to convince a jury to convict a man named Vonte Skinner. Police officers had found the rhymes scribbled in notebooks in Skinner’s car, which had reportedly been at the scene of a victim’s shooting.

Shots Fired

Someone shot Lamont Peterson seven times on the night of November 8, 2005. Having somehow survived, he reported to police that Skinner, the “muscle” for a shared group of drug dealers, did the shooting. Skinner, on the other hand, claimed that someone unconnected to him fired on Peterson. 

There was enough uncertainty at the trial for the jury to hang. But the prosecution retried Skinner, and at the second trial relied heavily on his written words. A detective read extensively from Skinner’s notebooks, which covered topics like murder, maiming, and violence against women. The second jury convicted Skinner of attempted murder, aggravated assault, and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, landing him a 30-year prison sentence.

But there was a problem with the conviction according to the New Jersey Supreme Court: those rap lyrics.

The “Bad Guy” Method

In its unanimous ruling on Monday, the court made clear that this wasn’t a free-speech issue, but rather a matter of plain old unfairness. The court explained that the lyrics in question had nothing to do with Lamont Peterson or the attack on him, and that they existed well before the shooting. The prosecution didn’t even argue that they actually tied Skinner to the attempted murder.

Instead, the government’s lawyers asserted that the stomach-turning verses “helped to demonstrate defendant’s ‘motive and intent’ in connection with the offense because the rap lyrics addressed a street culture of violence and retribution that fit with . . . defendant’s [alleged] role in the attempted murder.” In other words, the fictional, musical accounts tended to show Skinner’s guilt because, to the prosecution, he was a bad, violent guy.

Character & Art

In New Jersey courts, as in all others, evidence that’s too prejudicial—that is, too likely to lead to unfair bias against the defendant—is generally inadmissible. If the evidence’s prejudicial value is greater than its tendency to actually prove the defendant’s guilt, it can’t come in. 

For example, evidence that a defendant on trial for robbery previously robbed other victims would usually be inadmissible. True, the fact that he previously committed the same crime tends to support his guilt on the occasion in question. But, regardless of the other evidence against him, it’s also likely to convince the jury that he’s guilty this time around—or that he deserves a conviction for simply being a bad dude.

To New Jersey’s highest court, modes of artistic expression allow for this kind of problematic character judgment. Inflammatory fictional accounts like Skinner’s, which have no factual connection to an alleged crime, aren’t necessarily representative or predictive of the author’s behavior. To illustrate the point, Justice Jaynee LaVecchia evoked history’s most cherished reggae singer-songwriter: “One would not presume that Bob Marley, who wrote the well-known song ‘I Shot the Sheriff,’ actually shot a sheriff . . . .”

To be fair, Skinner’s lyrics were at least a tad more edgy than Marley’s. But nevertheless, LaVecchia’s point remains. When there’s no basis to suspect that musical lyrics describe a past crime or one in the planning stages, what purpose does their introduction serve apart from riling up the jury?

Staying on Point

Skinner’s case provided an opportunity for LaVecchia and the rest of the court to clarify the law moving forward: To come into evidence, “fictional forms of inflammatory self-expression” have to “reveal a strong nexus between the specific details of the artistic composition and the circumstances of the underlying offense.” Not only must the content be more probative than prejudicial, but New Jersey judges are supposed to consider whether alternative evidence is available to make the same point.

Whatever the realities may be, a determination of guilt isn’t supposed to be a judgment of character. So, granting Vonte Skinner a new trial was an easy call. In cases like his, prosecutors should bear the responsibility of proving actual, rather than moral, culpability. That way, artists can express—without incriminating—themselves.