Rap Goes to Court: When Lyrics Become Evidence In a Trial

The New Jersey Supreme Court is to decide whether prosecutors were wrong to use a singer’s lyrics to prove intent in his trial on a charge of attempted murder.

Vonte Skinner  
Vonte Skinner   New Jersey Department of Corrections

This week the Supreme Court of New Jersey is scheduled to hear final arguments in State v. Skinner, a case that could have a far-reaching impact on the criminal justice system.

The case reflects an alarming new trend in which lyrics by amateur rappers are used against them as evidence in criminal prosecutions.

Vonte Skinner, an admitted drug dealer and wannabe rapper, was arrested after a 2005 shooting and was found guilty in 2008 of attempted murder. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison, largely on the basis of rap lyrics composed prior to the 2005 incident.

Here’s a sample from the 13 pages of lyrics in question, which were found by police in his girlfriend’s car and used as evidence of Skinner’s motive and tendency toward violence:

Yo, look in my eyes. You can see death comin’ quick.
Look in my palms, you can see what I’m gunnin’ with.
I play no games when it comes to this war shit.
If death was a jacket, you would see how the floor fits.
Crackin’ your chest when I show you how the force spits,
Makin’ your mother wish she would have had an abortion.

Skinner’s conviction was overturned in 2012 by an appellate court that said the lyrics should not have been admitted as evidence. Now the Supreme Court of New Jersey will give it’s final review.

But regardless of the outcome in New Jersey, this prosecutorial tactic has gained momentum elsewhere. The Supreme Court of Nevada ruled last summer that rap lyrics can be allowed as evidence.

What we are now seeing is creative work by prosecutors to send to prison black and brown males who are also alleged criminals. Such use of song lyrics often prejudices juries by stereotyping the accused person as the personification of the character or caricature within the lyrics. As with the New Jersey case, the most extreme examples of this legal tactic rely solely on the lyrics, which are usually unassociated with the alleged crime, as the linchpin that proves guilt and sends the defendant to prison.

Let’s be clear: Any defendant who is proved guilty beyond a reasonable doubt with sound evidence is a criminal and should receive punishment. Yet rap lyrics are not credible witnesses. 

From the early sounds of the black experience in the United States, lyrics have been coded with a number of savvy, sapient and strategic devices such as double entendre, allegory and hyperbole. Across all of the genres within the chronological history of music evolving from black neighborhoods, the role of the protagonist is powerful. From the spiritually enriched narratives within gospel music to the captivating stories found in blues, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, R&B and soul, the protagonist wears many hats and coats and now and then carries a piece. One of the great protagonists in popular-music history is Stagger Lee.