The New Jersey Supreme Court on Monday ordered a new trial for a man whose attempted murder conviction was challenged because prosecutors used rap lyrics the man had authored as evidence against him.
Vonte Skinner was convicted in 2008 of shooting and paralyzing Lamont Peterson, a fellow drug crew member, in a 2005 dispute over guns and money in Willingboro, New Jersey. At his trial, prosecutors introduced 13 pages of violent rap lyrics Skinner had written as evidence against him.
“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," wrote Justice Jaynee LaVecchia in the court's unanimous opinion. "Defendant's lyrics should receive no different treatment."
In the often-vicious lyrics, Skinner boasts of being willing to perform drive-by shootings on crowded streets and commit acts so heinous that his enemy's mothers would wish they had had abortions.
The main character in the lyrics was named "Threat," a moniker Skinner used on the streets and had tattooed on his arm.
At his trial, prosecutors acknowledged that the lyrics did not refer to the shooting or another crime. They said the lyrics underscored a code of the streets that Skinner lived by.
While hearing arguments in May, justices on the state's highest court questioned how the lyrics showed Skinner's motives when they were apparently written five years before the shooting.
Acting New Jersey Attorney General John Jay Hoffman said he believed the court had erred.
"The lyrics at issue were properly admitted because they were directly probative of defendant's motive and intent to commit the attempted murder of Lamont Peterson," Hoffman said in a statement. "The lyrics clearly indicated defendant's role as an enforcer in a criminal street gang."
Other courts have convicted defendants based on rap lyrics, particularly when the lyrics bear striking resemblance to the crime at hand, the court's opinion noted.
Skinner's lawyers said they were pleased by the results.
“The court reached a correct result, that the defendant's writings had no connection to the charged offenses, and because their admission served no purpose other than to prejudice a jury,” said Jason Coe, Skinner's appellate lawyer from the New Jersey Public Defender's Office.
(Reporting by Daniel Kelley in Philadelphia; Editing by Barbara Goldberg, Grant McCool and Eric Beech)