NPR : News

A State Court Says Rap Lyrics Can't Be Used As Evidence In A Criminal Trial

Just a few days ago, Code Switch wrote about the use violent hip-hop lyrics as evidence in criminal cases, a practice that some critics say violates defendants' First Amendment rights and plays up jurors' misunderstandings of the use of hyperbole in hip-hop.

On Monday, the Supreme Court of New Jersey ruled on just that issue, saying that rap lyrics can't be used as evidence unless they include "a strong nexus" to the crime in question.

At issue was the case of Vonte Skinner, an aspiring rapper who was convicted of attempted murder in New Jersey in 2008. Violent lyrics that Skinner had written years in advance of the crime figured heavily in his trial.

In the opinion written by Justice Jaynee LaVecchia, the Supreme Court noted that rap lyrics, even those depicting acts of violence, aren't a crime. The Court also said that reading the lyrics risked "poisoning the jury" against Skinner.

"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. [Skinner's] lyrics should receive no different treatment," LaVecchia wrote.

The Court that Skinner be given a new trial.

Skinner, who recorded under the name "Real Threat," was convicted of shooting and paralyzing a drug dealer named Lamont Peterson in 2005. (Skinner admitted to being at the scene, but denied involvement in the shooting.) Police later found notebooks in Skinner's car filled with violent lyrics, and he was charged with first-degree attempted murder among other charges.

Against Skinner's protestations, the lyrics were admitted into the trial because the court found they were relevant in the prosecution's case against Skinner. The jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict, which resulted in a mistrial. In the second trial, a detective read thirteen pages of Skinner's violent lyrics, many of which were written long before the shooting took place.

The opinion noted some of the lyrics read to the jury:

On the block, I can box you down or straight/

Razor ox you down, run in your crib with the/

Four pound and pop your crown. Checkmate,/

Put your face in the ground. I'll drop your/

Queen and pawn, [expletive] – [expletive] wastin' around./

They don't call me Threat for nothin'./

In our previous post, we highlighted the case of a Virginia man named Antwain Steward. Steward was charged in a double-murder after detectives interpreted lyrics from one of his rap sons as a confession to the crime. The lyrics were not used in the trial themselves, and Steward was acquitted on the murder charges. (He was convicted on related gun charges, however.)

Some prosecutors argue that the violent lyrics can be clues to the suspect's state of mind. "If, in fact, we suspect someone of a crime and in their possession we find either rap music, rap lyrics, etc., that tends to corroborate other evidence that we have against that person, why should you be able to get a pass just because you call it art?" Alan Jackson, a former Los Angeles prosecutor, told NPR's Tell Me More earlier this year.

Later this year, the Supreme Court is set to take up the issue when it hears arguments in another case in which rap lyrics were central to a man's conviction for threatening and stalking his ex-wife.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit

WAMU 88.5

Art Beat With Lauren Landau, July 30, 2015

Folk music descends on Vienna this weekend. Elsewhere in Virginia, jazz music takes over a performing arts venue. 


You Say Striped Bass, I Say Rockfish. What's In A Fish Name?

Legally, a single fish species can go by many names from sea to plate, and different fish can go by the same name. An environmental group says that hampers efforts to combat illegal fishing and fraud.
WAMU 88.5

A Congressional Attempt To Speed The Development Of Lifesaving Treatments

Earlier this month, the House of Representatives passed the 21st Century Cures Act in a rare bi-partisan effort. The bill is meant to speed the development of lifesaving treatments, but critics warn it may also allow ineffective or even harmful drugs onto the market.


Oculus Uses 'Henry' Premiere To Wet Appetites For Its Virtual Reality Headset

The virtual reality company Oculus is close to releasing a headset for games, movies and other entertainment. The company premiered an animated short called Henry that will come with the headsets.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.