Use of rap lyrics to gain conviction gets skeptical hearing at N.J. high court

Vonte Skinner. (Source: New Jersey Department of Corrections)

TRENTON New Jersey Supreme Court justices gave a skeptical hearing Wednesday to a Burlington County prosecutor's argument that violent rap lyrics written by Vonte Skinner four or five years before he shot a man in Willingboro were relevant and admissible at his 2008 trial.

Justice Barry T. Albin pointedly asked Assistant Prosecutor Jennifer Paszkiewicz: "I'm asking you, how you can justify taking lyrics four to five years old . . . and somehow show they reveal a motive for a crime that occurs four to five years later?"

The case is one of about 20 across the country dealing with the admissibility of rap lyrics at criminal trials. The majority of courts have allowed juries to hear the lyrics, which sets a dangerous precedent that affects free-speech rights, according to Ezra Rosenberg, who argued before the high court on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union.

The group wants the court to require judges to take free-speech rights into consideration before allowing such lyrics to be admitted.

Rap lyrics often reflect "the hopelessness in inner cities," and no matter "how offensive, how repugnant," they play a role in social discourse and should not be used to convict the artists, Rosenberg told the court.

None of the five justices who had questions indicated support for the prosecutor's argument. A written decision is expected within four months.

In 2012, an appellate panel determined that the use of the rap lyrics at Skinner's trial was prejudicial. It ordered a new trial.

The panel wrote: "We have a significant doubt about whether the jurors would have found defendant guilty if they had not been required to listen to the extended reading of these disturbing and highly prejudicial lyrics."

The state appealed.

At his trial, Skinner was mainly implicated by his alleged victim. No gun was recovered. Prosecutors turned to Skinner's rap lyrics to establish his state of mind.

Thirteen pages of his rap lyrics were read to a Burlington County jury, after a Superior Court judge ruled they were relevant to the attempted-murder charges.

In the lyrics, Skinner refers to himself as "the Threat," and in one line he writes: "Yo, look in my eyes. You can see death comin'. Look in my palms, you can see what I'm gunnin' with."

The jury convicted Skinner of shooting Lamont Peterson in the head, neck, and torso at close range in 2005, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. Peterson had testified that Skinner was the "muscle" in a three-person gang in Willingboro that included the two men and Brandon Rothwell, whom Peterson identified as the leader.

Peterson testified that Skinner arranged to meet with him on the street and when he arrived, he was confronted by the two others and shot by Skinner.

Skinner admitted to police that he was there and said he heard a shot fired but was not the shooter.

Upon his arrest, police found three notebooks full of his lyrics in the backseat of the car he was driving.

A Superior Court judge sentenced Skinner to 30 years in prison. He is currently in the Camden County Jail.

Paszkiewicz argued that the rap lyrics were used to show Skinner "glamorized crime" and was an enforcer in a gang. Some of the graphic lyrics also talked about shooting someone in the head and neck, which is where Skinner shot Peterson, she said.

But neither she nor Deputy Attorney General Joseph Glyn could provide more details in the lyrics that directly linked Skinner's words to the crime. Glyn said that the lyrics he penned years before "appeared to be what he still thought" and that he had accepted his role in a gang as an enforcer.

Justice Jaynee LaVecchia questioned this: "You're treating the lyrics as if they're a diary. . . . How do we know they're not fictional? Authors would have to be very nervous about this."

Glyn said Mario Puzo, author of The Godfather, should not have had to fear prosecution because of "his knowledge of that lifestyle," and Johnny Cash would not have been prosecuted based on lyrics he wrote about shooting a man in Reno "just to watch him die."

He said Skinner's lyrics became relevant because he committed a crime and because the lifestyle depicted in his lyrics "shed light" on why he did it.

"The attorney general is not interested in prosecuting people for their rap lyrics. . . . This identified the defendant as a threat. . . . This was applicable to what the defendant thinks . . . and what he believes," Glyn said.

Albin shook his head. "There's a lot of people walking around with violent thoughts in their head, no? . . . It doesn't make it criminal because they put their thoughts on paper," he said.

Assistant public defender Jason Coe, representing Skinner, said his office was not in favor of a ban on using rap lyrics at trials, but said they must be "much more specific" in describing the crime.

Skinner's jury heard lyrics that contained misogynistic remarks that had no bearing on the crime and that glamorized crime in "excruciating detail," Coe said.

"They were read into the record . . . uninterrupted," he said.

Among the lyrics were verses that seemed to say that "the Threat" had shot, stabbed, and raped.

The appeals panel said there was no evidence that Skinner had done any of these things, but the "jurors were left to speculate that the defendant had done such things."

Another lyric said: "I'm in love with you, death."

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