Popular Culture

Should Violent Rap Lyrics Be Admitted As Criminal Evidence?

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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.

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Simply 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.