Should Violent Rap Lyrics Be Admitted As Criminal Evidence?

In 2005 prosecutors in New Jersey gained a murder conviction against a man named Vonte Skinner based largely on the fact that Skinner was fond of composing violent rap songs. During trial, the prosecution read lengthy portions of Skinner's lyrics, telling the jury they were hearing evidence of the man's violent, criminal disposition. The jury ultimately agreed.

On appeal, that ruling was overturned. According to the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, it had "significant doubt about whether the jurors would have found the defendent guilty if they had not been required to listen to the extended reading of these disturbing and highly prejudicial lyrics."

Skinner's case is now before the New Jersey Supreme Court, which heard oral argument this morning and must now decide whether or not those lyrics should count as permissible evidence in a criminal trial.

gnotalex / Flicker.comgnotalex / Flicker.comSimply put, the lyrics should be deemed inadmissible. As the New Jersey ACLU noted in an amicus brief it filed in the case, “that a rap artist wrote lyrics seemingly embracing a world of violence is no more reason to ascribe to him a motive and intent to commit violent acts” than it would be “to indict Johnny Cash for having ‘shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.’” Indeed, the First Amendment plainly includes the freedom to write about violent, gruesome, and offensive things without facing legal persecution for having done so. The New Jersey Supreme Court should void Skinner’s conviction.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Sevo||

    Absolutely!
    Juries have every right to laugh at the prosecution!

  • RBS||

    General violent rap lyrics-no. Very specific lyrics about a crime that was allegedly committed by the defendant-potentially.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    Sure, why not. Let's just move directly to "presumption of guilt" while we're at it.

  • John||

    This is not a first amendment issue. This is a due process and relevance issue and it is not even close. Federal Rule of Evidence (and I am sure New Jersey has the same or similar rule) states

    Evidence of other crimes, wrongs, or acts is not admissible to prove the character of a person in order to show action in conformity therewith.

    This is exactly the situation the rule was designed to prevent. You can't claim "well he did it before or he did this other thing we don't like, so he must have done this." The fact that the guy wrote violent rap lyrics cannot be used to prove he committed an act of violence.

    The judge who let that DA argue that, should be thrown off the bench and disbarred until he retakes first year evidence.

  • RBS||

    But you might get it in to show knowledge, which is what I was thinking about when I said maybe.

  • John||

    Only if the lyrics described the exact crime he committed. It would have to be a John David Stutts type situation where he raps about killing Buckwheat. Just general, "I like to shoot people" kind of stuff isn't going to do it.

  • RBS||

    Well yeah, that was also in my comment.

  • RBS||

    Mostly it was a response to the knee-jerk "everything the prosecution does must be bad." In this case it was but as you know , not every defendant is being railroaded.

  • John||

    I agree. What annoyed me is the "every legal issue involving speech must be about the 1st Amendment".

    Reason really does need to hire a lawyer to their staff. Some of the things they write are just wrong.

  • R C Dean||

    What annoyed me is the "every legal issue involving speech must be about the 1st Amendment".

    So much this. Exhibit A is the kerfuffle over filming cops. Thats just not a 1A issue, except perhaps very tangentially. Its a due process issue, having to do with the police preventing people from gathering evidence that could be useful to the defense.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    Why is Eric Clapton not on death row?

    He shot the sheriff, and bragged about it all over the airwaves!

    OFFICER SAFETY requires vengeance.

  • John||

    Indeed, the First Amendment plainly includes the freedom to write about violent, gruesome, and offensive things without facing legal persecution for having done so.

    Absolutely it does. But that is not the issue here. I have a First Amendment right to write a diary entry describing my elaborate plan to poison my wife with arsenic. If a few weeks later my wife turns up dead from arsenic poisoning, my 1st Amendment rights are not going to keep that diary entry from being used against me at my murder trial as evidence of planning and malice aforethought.

    The problem here is not that the lyrics were used against him. It is the way in which they were used against him. So stop it with the 1st Amendment stuff.

  • Ornithorhynchus||

    The trial in How To Murder Your Wife was pretty much based entirely around the comic strip he'd written describing a murder in detail just before his wife disappeared. Of course, Jack Lemmon was acquitted, and as it turned out, he was innocent anyway.

  • R C Dean||

    He wasn't being prosecuted for the lyrics. That's why this isn't a 1A issue.

    The lyrics were improperly admitted evidence of a completely separate and unrelated crime. Prosecuting him for that crime raises zero 1A issues. improperly admitting (prejudicial) evidence is a due process issue.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement