A Shameful Prosecutorial Act: Using Rap Lyrics Against Young Black Male Defendants

A blog about murder, theft, and other wickedness.
Aug. 14 2013 3:44 PM

A Shameful Prosecutorial Act: Using Rap Lyrics Against Young Black Male Defendants

skinner
Vonte Skinner

New Jersey Department of Corrections

In 2008 a New Jersey drug dealer and aspiring rapper named Vonte Skinner was tried in the attempted murder of Lamont Peterson, a fellow dealer who had fallen out of favor with Skinner’s boss. When he was arrested, police found drafts of graphic rap lyrics in the back seat of Skinner’s girlfriend’s car. At trial, prosecutors read 13 pages’ worth of those lyrics to the jury, to help establish Skinner as a violent dude who had the “motive and intent” to attempt to kill Peterson. (Sample lyric: “I'm the dude to shoot at ya' neck, shatter your life like a bottle of Becks. One and only to slice a dude like bologna, you don't know me. I'll watch you pricks die slowly, lay you stiff like a trophy.”) The tactic worked, or at least it didn't hurt: Skinner was convicted and sentenced to 30 years in prison.

In 2012 Skinner’s conviction was overturned by an appellate court, which found that the rap lyrics—all of which had been written long before the Skinner affair, and none of which mentioned Peterson or any desire on Skinner’s part to kill him—should never have been admitted into evidence. Now, with the New Jersey Supreme Court set to review the case, attorneys working on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey have written an amicus brief asking the state Supreme Court to affirm the reversal of Skinner’s conviction, and to “adopt a more stringent set of standards to guide courts in admitting into evidence a criminal defendant’s fictional, artistic expressions.”

Advertisement

I hope they do. It makes me very uncomfortable that prosecutors are using fictional writings as evidence against defendants in criminal cases. And it makes me even more uncomfortable that they seem to be doing so disproprtionately in cases involving young black men.

The amicus brief cites 18 separate cases in which prosecutors attempted to use a defendant’s rap lyrics as evidence against him. In some of these cases, the lyrics adhere closely to the facts of the alleged crime. (A man named Dennis Greene, on trial for killing his wife, perhaps unwisely recorded a song asserting that his wife “made me mad, and I had to take her life. My name is Dennis Greene and I ain’t got no f---king wife.”) In others, though, prosecutors presented irrelevant lyrics and encouraged the jury to infer that the defendant had criminal intent. Among others, the brief cites the case of United States v. Foster, in which the 7th Circuit upheld “the admission of rap lyrics in [a] drug distribution case to show defendant’s knowledge of the ‘reality’ around ‘urban life.’ ”

That’s ludicrous. I’m almost certain that prosecutors are cynically hoping that the members of their juries hate rap music and consider it a scourge—that they’re inclined to believe that a rapper who writes about drug deals and murders is himself a drug dealer or a murderer. As the amicus brief notes, “that a rap artist wrote lyrics seemingly embracing the world of violence is no more reason to ascribe to him a motive and intent to commit violent acts than to saddle Dostoevsky with Raskolnikov’s motives or to indict Johnny Cash for having ‘shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.’ ”

I agree. And I certainly agree that Vonte Skinner’s rap lyrics—which actually aren’t terrible—should not have been allowed as evidence in his trial. The state Supreme Court should affirm the reversal of his conviction, and prosecutors need to stop trying to admit rap lyrics that have nothing to do with the case in question.

Crime is Slate’s crime blog. Like us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter @slatecrime.

Justin Peters is a writer for Slate. He is working on a book about Aaron Swartz, copyright, and the rise of “free culture.” Email him at justintrevett@fastmail.fm.