The state Supreme Court and the Appellate Division are debating the constitutional legitimacy of using a rapper’s lyrics as evidence against him in a murder trial, after the conviction of local artist and drug-gang enforcer Vonte Skinner. Skinner, from Willingboro, was convicted of attempted murder after he shot Lamont Peterson in November of 2005, and left him paralyzed from the waist down. At his trial, the jury listened to clips from the rapper’s songs, but now, criminal lawyers in New Jersey report that the conviction may be overturned once the state Supreme Court issues its ruling.
In question are several lines of controversial verse that, according to the prosecution, provided evidence of Skinner’s character, motive, and intent in the shooting of another person. Skinner, who goes by the name Threat in his musical career, was charged with aggravated assault and attempted murder, and sentenced to 30 years in prison, based on the jury’s original verdict after hearing his song. The lyrics the jury heard included Skinner’s claims: “In the block wars I’m a vet. In the hood I’m a threat. It’s written on my arm and signed in blood on my tech. Yo, look in my eyes, you can see death comin’ quick. Look in my palms, you can see what I’m gunnin’ with. I play no games when it comes to this war (expletive).”
In another verse played for the jury, Threat details shooting a man he disagrees with, demonstrating his familiarity with guns and gun violence. “A (racial slur) wouldn’t listen so I hit him with the Smithen; hauled off 15 rounds, seven missed him. Two to the mask and six to the ribs, lifted and flipped him.” The explicit wording was discussed at the rapper’s trial, and helped fuel the jury’s decision that the lyrics were relevant, and spoke to Skinner’s motive, as well as his violent tendencies.
After a split decision, the Appellate Division panel reversed the original conviction, ruling that the lyrics’ probative value was outweighed by the risk that the jury would have undue prejudice after hearing them. Now, the case has been taken before the state Supreme Court, who heard arguments last month regarding whether writing violent lyrics really makes a person violent, and how constitutionally valid it is to present said lyrics as evidence.
If the state Supreme Court rules in favor of using the lyrics in trial, criminal attorneys in New Jersey fear that several other singers and artists should begin to worry about their First Amendment Rights, and their freedom of speech. If art, including poems, books, lyrics, and other expressions, can be used to prove a person’s mindset, regardless of the genre or intent, this could open the door to prejudice against all kinds of artists, especially those who work with controversial subjects.
At the New Jersey law firm Helmer, Conley, and Kasselman, PA, our criminal attorneys represent anyone who has been charged with a gun or violent crime, and especially anyone whose constitutional rights may have been violated in a previous trial or investigation. To discuss your case, contact an HCK attorney today.