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Rap Lyrics On Trial This Week At NJ Supreme Court

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By Pat Loeb

TRENTON, N.J. (CBS) – The New Jersey Supreme Court will hear arguments Monday in a case that has gotten national attention because it could have a far-reaching impact on whether and when prosecutors can use rap lyrics written by defendants as evidence against them.

The case involves Vonte Skinner, a drug dealer and would-be rap star from Willingboro, convicted of attempted murder in the 2005 shooting of a fellow dealer. Skinner’s cell phone was one of several found at the scene, but there was no other physical evidence linking him to the crime.

Prosecutors, however, were permitted to read the jury 13 pages of rap lyrics Skinner had written, replete with violent images such as, “I’m, the dude to shoot at ya’ neck, shatter your life like a bottle of Becks.”

“These lyrics can have an extremely prejudicial impact on juries,” says Professor Erik Nielsen who is studying the use of rap lyrics by prosecutors. “The Skinner case is a particularly egregious use of rap lyrics. All of these lyrics were written from months to years before the actual crime occurred. None of them mentioned the victim and none of them included details related to the crime.”

Indeed, an appeals court ordered a new trial, finding it was the lyrics, not the evidence, that swayed the jury.

The Burlington County prosecutor has asked the state high court to overturn that ruling and let Skinner’s conviction stand. His spokesman says he will not comment until the Supreme Court rules.

The ACLU has filed an amicus brief on Skinner’s behalf.

“Based on the record, we don’t believe there’s any evidence that he actually did anything in the lyrics that he wrote,” says Jeanne LoCicero, deputy legal director for ACLU-NJ. “We want the Supreme Court to instruct lower courts that when prosecutors want to use lyrics as evidence, they have to show a connection between the lyrics and the crime.”

Nielsen says there are dozens of similar cases across the country:

“I continue to be astounded by the number of cases involving rap as evidence,” he tells KYW Newsradio. “And I should note no other fictional form is used this way in court.”

Because rap is written in the first person, Nielsen says juries are told the lyrics are autobiographical, despite the fact that artists typically create characters, adopting stage names and using exaggerated, bombastic language.

No one, Nielsen notes, thought Edgar Allen Poe actually killed someone when he wrote short stories narrated in the first person by murderers.

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