In 2005, Vonte Skinner was arrested after shooting, and paralysing, a fellow gang member; in 2008, he was found guilty of attempted murder and sentenced to 30 years in jail. But in 2012, an appellate court overturned the conviction on the grounds that a particular form of evidence should never have been admissible. Last Thursday, the case reached the New Jersey Supreme Court as the prosecution continues to insist that the evidence ruled inadmissible in 2012 does indeed suggest Skinner was guilty of attempted murder.
And what is this evidence? What is it that is so potentially incriminating? Incredibly, it’s song lyrics.
When police officers pulled over and arrested Skinner, an amateur rap artist, shortly after the crime was perpetrated, they found a notebook on the back seat of his car with page after page of rap lyrics. These lyrics - which were mostly written in the first person, describing violent acts, and using racial epithets and profanities - were certainly graphic: ‘I love bringin’ heat and to beef melt ya’ Jeep. Two to your helmet and four slugs drillin’ your cheek to blow your face off and leave your brain caved in the street.’
To anyone who has listened to rap music, particularly the gangsta sub-genre, this will sound pretty typical. It is also important to note that the lyrics were written between two months and four years prior to the alleged attempted murder and bore no specific relation to the crime in question. Despite this, prosecutors at Skinner’s trial in 2008 relied heavily on the lyrics as evidence, referring to them repeatedly during the trial. In fact, the trial judge allowed the state to read out 13 pages of lyrics in court.
This case is not unique and is part of a worrying trend across the United States. At the time of writing, 16 states have allowed rap lyrics to be presented as evidence by the state in prosecutions. In Virginia, the case of Antwain Steward goes to court in May. Steward is accused of murder, a charge which he denies, and his rap lyrics are a central part of the prosecution case.