Vonte Skinner's graphic, violence-laced rap lyrics bore no relation to the shooting of a fellow drug dealer in 2005 and shouldn't have been introduced at his attempted murder trial, attorneys asserted Wednesday as New Jersey's Supreme Court heard arguments in a case that is being closely watched by civil liberties advocates.
Skinner's conviction, after a first trial ended in a hung jury, was overturned by an appeals court that faulted the trial judge for allowing state prosecutors to read 13 pages of the lyrics to jurors — nearly all written before the crime, some years before. Among the lyrics, Skinner boasted about "four slugs drillin' your cheek to blow your face off and leave your brain caved in the street."
"The prejudicial effect was enormous," Jason Coe, an attorney representing Skinner, told the justices Wednesday. "At best it leaves jurors with the impression that this person is reprehensible, with no regard for human life."
The issue is a thorny one. Judges must balance whether the relevance of writings such as rap lyrics outweigh the potentially inflammatory effect they may have on a jury. The appeals court wrote that admitting prior writings as evidence should be treated carefully, similar to admitting evidence of past crimes, which is barred in most instances.
Attorneys arguing for Skinner allowed that there are instances in which such writings would be permissible in a trial. The ACLU, which filed a brief in the case and argued for Skinner on Wednesday, estimates that in about 20 cases nationwide where lyrics have come up, the writings have been allowed as evidence in the vast majority. In an Indiana case involving a defendant charged with killing his stepmother and placing her body in the trunk of a car, for instance, a court allowed lyrics referring to a body in the trunk of a car.
Skinner was convicted of shooting Lamont Peterson multiple times at close range, leaving Peterson paralyzed from the waist down. Peterson was reluctant initially to identify Skinner as the shooter but eventually testified that Skinner was the assailant. Peterson testified the two men sold drugs as part of a three-man "team" got into a dispute when Peterson began skimming some of the profits.
Arguing for the state, deputy attorney general Joseph Glyn conceded Wednesday that the lyrics likely had a prejudicial effect on the jury but that it was trumped by their relevance in describing the street code that Skinner adhered to, in which even a minor transgression could merit a violent reaction.
"The lyrics explain why the defendant did what he did," Glyn told the justices, adding that without the lyrics, "the defendant's actions are inexplicable given his relationship to the victim."
The justices questioned Glyn and assistant Burlington County prosecutor Jennifer Paszkiewicz repeatedly on why the lyrics would be relevant when some of them were written years before and didn't describe the specific type of attack on Peterson.
"What about these shows motive?" Justice Jaynee LaVecchia asked.
The lyrics dovetailed with Peterson's testimony, Paszkiewicz responded.
"They showed why he would kill someone who was a compatriot, someone with whom he shared a boss and shared acquaintances," she said.
The court is expected to issue a ruling in the next few months.