Can Rap Lyrics Be Used in a Murder Trial?

Rappers are in and out of jail on a regular basis of their own often-stupid accord. Some of our favorite artists have been convicted of everything from tax evasion and drug possession to gun charges and everything in between. Most mainstream rap artists have violent lyrics or speak of criminal acts. However, the ACLU is fighting the growing trend of prosecutors and judges pushing to allow the creative properties of MCs to be used in court.

According to the ACLU, of the 18 cases in which rap lyrics were presented by prosecutors as evidence, those lyrics were deemed admissible in 80 percent of the cases. In the latest instance of this happening, the blurred line between art and reality is being considered by the New Jersey Supreme Court in the case of Vonte Skinner.

After an initial trial ended without a verdict, Skinner was convicted and sentenced to 30 years for shooting Lamont Peterson in 2008. Peterson testified that Skinner shot him because he was skimming profits from a three-man drug operation of which the two were members. During the trial, state prosecutors read 13 pages of rap lyrics that were found in the backseat of the car Skinner was driving when arrested. The writings, some penned three or four years before the Peterson shooting, include a reference to "four slugs drillin' your cheek to blow your face off and leave your brain caved in the street."

After these rhymes helped put yet another brother away, Skinner’s conviction was overturned in 2012 by an appellate court that ruled the lyrics should not have been admissible in court because there was no evidence that Skinner ever committed any of the crimes he rhymed about. The appellate court ruling noted that caution must be used in allowing prior writings as evidence in a trial. Judges wrote that the lyrics weren't necessary to buttress the state's case. And The American Civil Liberties Union [ACLU] of New Jersey says that rap lyrics are protected under the Constitution as free speech.  

In a brief submitted in support of Skinner, the ACLU says rap lyrics are treated different than other written works because of their often-violent imagery.

"That a rap artist wrote lyrics seemingly embracing the world of violence is no more reason to ascribe to him a motive and intent to commit violent acts than to … indict Johnny Cash for having 'shot a man in Reno just to watch him die,'" according to the brief.

"We're not saying song lyrics can never be evidence, but that there needs to be a direct connection to the crimes," said Jeanne LoCicero, deputy legal director of the ACLU New Jersey.

Sent to the New Jersey Supreme Court, according to Mother Jones, the case will be heard next month.

But it's scary to wonder how many young brothers have been locked up based off rap lyrics. The hip hop lifestyle has always been risky. And now here's more drama to add to the saga, and another sneaky excuse to increase the black and brown prisoner count.


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