Court Holds Violent Rap Lyrics Inadmissible to Prove Motive

August 8th, 2014

In the case of State v. Skinner, the New Jersey State Supreme Court held that it was reversible error for a trial court to admit graphically violent rap lyrics, written by the defendant the night before an alleged attempted murder, in order to prove motive and intent.  According to the Supreme Court, the profane and violent nature of the lyrics had little or no probative value in the case, and was substantially outweighed by the possibility that they would prejudice the jury against the defendant.  Therefore, the trial court should not have admitted the lyrics and the prosecutor should not have been permitted to argue that the lyrics showed that defendant had a motive to murder the alleged victim.

In this case, the alleged victim, Lamont Paterson, was shot several times in the back.  Paterson told police officers that defendant Vonte Skinner was the one who had fired the shots.  At trial, Skinner advanced a “third-party guilty” theory, arguing that it was another man, Joseph Ward, who had shot Paterson.  Skinner admitted that he was at the scene of the shooting, but that he ran away when shots were fired and left his vehicle behind.  During a search of the vehicle, police discovered notebooks filled with lyrics written by Skinner using his alias “Real Threat.”

At trial, the Court admitted the lyrics, and the prosecutor read to the jury extensively from the notebooks.  The lyrics depicted violence, profanity, and bloodshed, but did not directly reference the shooting of Paterson.  For example, one of the lyrics read by the prosecutor to the jury was: “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. Go ahead and play hard. I’ll have you in front of heaven prayin’ to God, body parts displaying the scars, puncture wounds and bones blown apart, showin’ your heart full of black marks, thinkin’ you already been through hell, well, here’s the best part. You tried to lay me down with you and your dogs until the guns barked. Your last sight you saw was the gun spark, nothin’ but pure dark, like Bacardi.  Dead drunk in the bar, face lent over the wheel of your car, brain s in your lap, tryin’ to comprehend what the f**k just tore you apart, made your brains pop out your skull.

The Court first noted that none of the events described in Skinner’s lyrics were in any way related to what actually happened; therefore, the lyrics portrayed fictional events.  Probative evidence may only be found in an individual’s artistic endeavors if there is a strong nexus between specific details of the artistic composition and circumstances of the offense with which a defendant is charged.  The Court also noted that the prosecutor, in lecturing the jury about the “culture of violence” taking over the regular culture and risking an entire community, runs the risk of becoming a “call to arms” to a jury, which would be prosecutorial misconduct.

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