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State v. Skinner

Rap Lyrics Improperly Admitted Against Defendant in Shooting Case

The New Jersey Supreme Court unanimously affirmed a New Jersey Appellate Division decision overturning a defendant’s conviction based on the improper use of his self-written rap lyrics against him. Vonte Skinner was convicted of attempted murder, aggravated assault, and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

The victim, Lamont Peterson, was shot seven times, and on the way to the hospital he told police that defendant Skinner was the person responsible.

Skinner’s first trial resulted in a hung jury. At that trial, the judge allowed into evidence rap lyrics, written by the defendant, as evidence of his motive and intent to commit the crime. The lyrics were found written in notebooks obtained from Skinner’s car by police using a search warrant.

Prior to the beginning of the second trial, Skinner again asserted his objection to the admission of the lyrics into evidence, but the lyrics were allowed. This trial resulted in Skinner’s conviction.

Defendant appealed the case to the New Jersey Appellate Division. The panel reviewing the case overturned the conviction, holding that, the prejudicial effect of the rap lyrics outweighed the probative value of the evidence.

This is the balancing test used for any piece of evidence a party tries to have admitted. The rules of evidence allow for the admittance of any relevant evidence provided that the probative value is not substantially outweighed by the prejudicial effect, as determined by the judge.

On appeal the New Jersey Supreme Court agreed with the Appellate Division. “The admission of defendant’s inflammatory rap verses, a genre that certain members of society view as art and others view as distasteful and descriptive of a mean-spirited culture, risked poisoning the jury against defendant” (State v. Skinner, A-57/58-12, August 2, 2014).

The Court even went on further to state, “The State concedes that many of the lyrics found in defendant’s car and read to the jury were composed long before the circumstances underlying the instant offense took place.” Id. at 7. This further supported the Appellate Division’s finding that the prejudicial effect outweighed any sort of probative value the evidence might add to the State’s case.

The Court broadly concluded, “In sum, we reject the proposition that probative evidence about a charged offense can be found in an individual’s artistic endeavors absent a strong nexus between specific details of the artistic composition and the circumstances of the offense for which the evidence is being adduced.” Id. at 35.

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