Are Rap Lyrics Admissible Evidence in Court?

“Gangsta rap” music is a little like punk music: bluntly-worded, in-your-face, and notorious for relentlessly pushing the label.  Rap lyrics about the gangster lifestyle have been leading to scandals, debates, and headlines in the news since “straight outta Compton” became a pop culture catchphrase more than 20 years ago — controversy around hip hop is nothing new.  But in the recent case of State v. Skinner, rap lyrics were used to put a man in prison.  Now, the New Jersey Supreme Court will decide: are rap lyrics admissible evidence in court?  Are prosecutors blocking crime, or were they simply making assumptions?

Rap Lyrics Used as Evidence in Murder Trial Lead to 30 Year Sentence

Gangsta rappers have been bragging about their rap sheets (so to speak) for decades.  Lyrics detailing shootings, drug trafficking, pimps and prostitutes are nothing new within the genre — but in the recent case of Vonte Skinner, those lyrics contributed heavily to a conviction and lengthy prison sentence.

In 2005, Skinner was arrested following his role in a shooting.  In 2008, he was found guilty of attempted murder, and was sentenced to 30 years in prison.  The prosecuting attorneys cited the following lyrics, among others, as evidence of Skinner’s predisposition toward criminal behavior:

Yo, look in my eyes.  You can see death comin’ quick.
Look in my palms, you can see what I’m gunnin’ with…
Crackin’ your chest when I show you how the force spits,
Makin’ your mother wish she would have had an abortion.

Another song from the 13-page compilation of lyrics chanted, “In the hood, I am a threat.  It’s written on my arm and signed in blood on my Tech,” a reference to the TEC-9 semi-automatic weapon.

Skinner was convicted — but his story is far from over.  In 2012, the conviction was overturned by an appellate court, and now, the New Jersey Supreme Court will decide whether the lyrics were admissible as valid evidence.

A Violation of the First Amendment?

Some would say that Vonte Skinner is a criminal, as his violent lyrics demonstrate.  But others would say that his rights have been violated, and that his lyrics are simply artistic expression which never mentioned a specific, factual incident.  The ACLU sides with the latter camp, and has issued the following statement:

Rap lyrics are a form of artistic expression that are protected under the First Amendment and the New Jersey Constitution and trial court judges should adopt guidelines to guide courts when considering whether or not to admit fictional, artistic expression as evidence.

The ACLU has been involved in similar cases before.  The organization found that in 2013, among 18 cases where the use of rap lyrics as evidence was brought into question, the lyrics were judged to be admissible evidence approximately 80% of the time.  During the summer of 2013, the Nevada Supreme Court ruled that rap lyrics were admissible evidence in the murder trial of Deyundrea Orlando Holmes. In other words, there’s a strong precedent for these matters — and it doesn’t lean in Skinner’s favor.

Nonetheless, the case is ongoing, and no one can definitively predict what the New Jersey Supreme Court’s ruling will be.  We will have to watch Skinner’s story as it continues to develop.

If you are facing criminal charges, an experienced defense attorney can help ensure that your legal rights are protected.  For a free and confidential case evaluation, call the law offices of Joseph Lombardo at (609) 445-4300, or contact us online.

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