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Dropping Bars and Bodies II: Court Nixes Lyrical Conviction

By William Peacock, Esq. on August 05, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

"I'm the n***a to drive-by and tear your block up, leave you, your homey and neighbors shot up, chest, shots will have you spittin' blood clots up. Go ahead and play hard. I'll have you in front of heaven prayin' to God, body parts displaying the scars, puncture wounds and bones blown apart, showin' your heart full of black marks, thinkin' you already been through hell, well, here's the best part. You tried to lay me down with you and your dogs until the guns barked."

He's no Nasir Jones, but we'll give him the benefit of the doubt. After all, these lyrics by "Real Threat" (real name Vonte Skinner) were draft lyrics, found in a notebook in his car. They were also used to convict him of an attempted murder of a fellow drug dealer, one who fingered Skinner as the culprit.

Fortunately for him, the New Jersey Supreme Court has reversed his conviction, holding that 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."

'Motive and Intent' or Fictional Persona?

We talked about this just a few months ago: Prosecutors and police are increasingly turning to defendants' rap lyrics as evidence of motive and intent. So far, they've had mixed success in courts, with a Washington state appeals court overturning a conviction in a case involving fictional writings.

In that case, the appeals court held that "any probative value would be overwhelmed by the danger of unfair prejudice," and rejecting the "proposition that an author's character can be determined by the type of book that he writes."

As we noted previously, rappers are often less than truthful about their true biographies. For example, Rick Ross is a former prison guard who assumed an incarcerated drug dealer's persona and identity. Tupac took ballet classes. Like all celebrities, they tell the public what it wants to hear, and nobody wants to listen to rap songs about talking through one's problems peacefully.

We've seen "fake thugs" go mulit-platinum and yet somehow an artist's lyrics are supposed to be reliable enough, and probative enough, to prove motive and intent in cases that often don't even match the lyrics? Not so much.

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N.J. Supreme Court: Fictional Form of Inflammatory Self-Expression, Not Admissible Evidence

While not categorically excluding lyrics from criminal prosecutions, the court did say that courts should be a bit skeptical as to the veracity of the content, and therefore, its admissibility.

"One would not presume that Bob Marley, who wrote the well-known song 'I Shot the Sheriff,' actually shot a sheriff, or that Edgar Allan Poe buried a man beneath his floorboards, as depicted in his short story 'The Tell-Tale Heart,' simply because of their respective artistic endeavors on those subjects," the court said. "Defendant's lyrics should receive no different treatment."

Instead, lyrics should not be admitted as evidence unless there is "a strong nexus" between the writing and the facts of the crime, and the probative value outweighs the apparent prejudicial impact. In other words, a one-to-one lyrical confession might be admitted, but otherwise, it's unlikely.

For Skinner, his first trial for shooting a fellow male drug-dealer ended in a deadlocked jury and a mistrial. During the second trial, a police officer's uninterrupted reading of lyrics lasted for 13 pages in the transcripts, and included lyrics about murder and violence against women -- material that the court pointed out was "unconnected to the specific facts of the attempted-murder charge against [Skinner]."

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