A New Jersey man on trial for attempted murder will wait for the state Supreme Court to decide whether the words he rapped should have been admitted at trial. Vonte Skinner, who rapped that he would “blow your face off and leave your brain caved in the street,” is having his case watched closely by civil liberties advocates who believe that Skinner’s raps should be protected under the free speech portion of the Constitution, the Associated Press reports.
The ACLU New Jersey contends in a statement, “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 seen by AP.
Skinner’s initial trial ended without a verdict. At a second trial, Skinner was convicted of shooting Lamont Peterson multiple times at close range in 2005, leaving Peterson paralyzed from the waist down.
Peterson reluctantly identified Skinner as the shooter and testified that the two men sold drugs as part of a three-man crew. A dispute between the two developed when Peterson began skimming some of the money for himself, AP reports.
When Skinner was arrested, the car he was driving had a book full of his rap lyrics, some written three or four years before the shooting, in the back seat. Prosecutors read 13 pages of his lyrics during the trial.
One passage describes a mother in a mortuary, taking clothes “red soaked ravaged with holes” and “Wonderin’ if you died in pain. Was it instant or did you feel the slugs fryin’ your veins,” AP reports.
An appellate court overturned the verdict in a two-to-one ruling noting that, similar to admitting evidence of prior crimes, caution must be exercised when allowing prior writings as evidence in a trial. The judges also wrote that the lyrics weren’t necessary to decide the state’s case, AP reports.
In its brief viewed by AP, the ACLU said that an analysis of similar cases in other states found that in 14 of 18 instances, judges allowed rap lyrics to be admitted as evidence. The brief urges the Supreme Court to toughen the standards for admitting lyrics as evidence in a trial.
“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.