The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled Monday that rap lyrics were wrongly used as evidence in an attempted-murder trial — in the second such case it’s ever had to consider.
Here’s what happened: Lamont Peterson was shot several times during an altercation in Willingboro Township in 2005. (It was, Peterson told police, related to a disagreement over how to split up drug money.) He told an officer that Vonte Skinner shot him. Police later searched Skinner’s house and found three notebooks filled with rap lyrics — which he’d been writing since he was a child. Skinner’s first trial ended in a mistrial, but he was convicted at his second, during which a detective read some of his lyrics to the jury. Here’s a sample, according to the Supreme Court’s ruling:
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. Your last sight you saw was the gun spark, nothin’ but pure dark, like Bacardi. Dead drunk in the bar, face lent over the wheel of your car, brains in your lap, tryin’ to comprehend what the f**k just tore you apart, made your brains pop out your skull.
What he wrote was violent but unconnected to the case, yet the state, in the words of the Supreme Court, “did not attempt to clarify or explain the lyrics in any way.” The jury eventually convicted Skinner of attempted murder, aggravated assault and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. But the conviction was reversed on appeal, with a panel finding that the use of the lyrics as evidence was “reversible error and necessitated a new trial.”
The state disagreed, citing in part the only other time the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled on rap lyrics as evidence. In that murder case, the court found that such lyrics could be admitted for a number of reasons, including that they shed light on the killer’s motive and portrayed “a desire to experience the thrill of killing,” they said in this latest opinion. But in this case, they found that the introduction of evidence could not pass all four parts of a test established in the state in 1992, known as the Cofield test. In explaining part of that analysis, the court noted the difficulty in proving that artistic expression equals action.
“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 wrote. “Defendant’s lyrics should receive no different treatment.”
Monday’s ruling will require a retrial, the court noted.