Sunday, August 17, 2014

A rap over the knuckles for US prosecutors

Vonte Skinner is one of the many amateur rap artists whose lyrics have been used as evidence against them in US court cases. Skinner was charged and convicted of attempted murder by a New Jersey court in 2008. Part of the evidence submitted by the prosecution, and which led to his conviction, was a notebook full of scrawled rap lyrics that was found in Skinner’s car.

This decision was overturned by the New Jersey appeals court in 2012 which deemed the lyrics inadmissible. Due to a split decision at the appellate court, the prosecution was able to take the case to the New Jersey Supreme Court which last week finally ruled in Skinner’s favour.

In a unanimous verdict, the court upheld fundamental principles of freedom of expression, denounced the state’s prejudicial use of song lyrics and upheld the right to be offensive:

‘To be sure, writing rap lyrics – even disturbingly graphic lyrics, like the defendant’s – is not a crime. Nor is it a bad act or a wrong to engage in the act of writing about unpalatable subjects, including inflammatory subjects such as depicting events or lifestyles that may be condemned as anti-social, mean-spirited, or amoral.’

The Supreme Court justices used their own examples to underline the absurdity of using fictional materials to aid prosecutions:

‘One cannot presume that, simply because an author has chosen to write about certain topics, he or she has acted in accordance with those views. 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”.’

Vonte Skinner will now be retried for attempted murder; his rap lyrics will not be admissible as evidence, nor will similar forms of artistic expression be admissible in future cases.



Anonymous said...

Perhaps some actual forensic evidence may have been helpful?

Anonymous said...

Anon 1:27 -- Likely there was plenty of forensic evidence as well, the article behind the SOURCE link hints at that. I would hazard to guess that the prosecutor in that case used the lyrics to help bolster the "motive" part of his case.

Anonymous said...

Justices upheld the right to be offensive. Of course, that right exists only if you offend an unprotected class.

Anonymous said...

So writings, vblogs, songs, diaries are now inadmissible in court to show mental state and proclivities of the defendant?

Anonymous said...

Anon 4:31 - Only until this precedence is overturned in a better organised case.

Anonymous said...

Determinations on what evidence ought be admissable usually turn on a balancing act between what has probative value and what is prejudicial.
Clearly the Court felt the lyrics had little probative value but were highly prejudicial.
This shouldn't be surprising given the rap culture of misogyny, gangsterism and violence. Not too many raps about how you're going to go out and make new friends and help orphans.

Bird of Paradise said...

Not all rap songs are full of the usial bile and poison some are conservative and good