This Rapper's Ultra Violent Lyrics Should Never Have Been Used Against Him in Attempted Murder Trial
Vonte Skinner has been in jail for almost ten years. In a way, the fact that he's been locked up so long is a testament to the power of his own words; it's also, as the New Jersey Supreme Court wrote today, a complete injustice.
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Skinner was arrested in 2005, and charged with the attempted murder of a drug dealer named Lamont Peterson. Peterson was shot at close range with a 9-millimeter gun on November 8, 2005; the attack left him paralyzed from the waist down. The gun itself was never recovered, but several cell phones left at the scene were.
One of those phones belonged to Vonte Skinner. Skinner never denied being at the scene--he told officers he was there to buy coke from Peterson. Skinner said he heard shots ring out shortly before the transaction took place and ran away.
Peterson ultimately fingered Skinner for the shooting, but it wasn't his story (which changed several times) that ultimately convinced a jury to convict. It was Skinner's own rap lyrics, written in a notebook recovered from the backseat of his girlfriend's Chevy Malibu (the car he was driving when he was arrested nine days after the shooting) that judges believe turned jurors against him.
The problem is all of Skinner's verses were written before the trial--in some cases, as many as 5 years prior. While many were graphic--"I suggest that you not rock me, cause head shots will leave you top sloppy and brains leakin', frame tweakin', and your family in the church talkin' to the main Deacon"--they weren't specific to the crime for which Skinner was being tried. That was one point Jason A. Coe, assistant deputy public defender representing Skinner, emphasized during oral arguments in April.
Today, the justices sided with Coe, writing, "Self-expressive fictional, poetic, lyrical, and like writings about bad acts, wrongful acts, or crimes generally should not be deemed evidential unless the writing bears probative value to the underlying offense for which a person is charged and the probative value of that evidence outweighs its prejudicial impact."
That's a big deal, says Ezra Rosenberg, who argued on behalf of the ACLU. (The ACLU, alarmed by what it saw as a violation of Skinner's first amendment rights, filed an amicus brief in the case.) He was pleased too see the justices declare "extreme caution must be exercised when expressive work is involved, particularly when such expression involves social commentary, exaggeration, and fictional accounts."
Rosenberg explains, "That goes beyond what is typically done in applying the rules of evidence. The court is recognizing that when expressive work is in involved there has to be even greater scrutiny."
Coe was likewise pleased with the decision. "The court reached the correct result because the defendant's writings had no connection to the charged offenses and because their admission served no purpose other than to prejudice the jury," he said.
In statement on Burlington County Prosecutor Robert D. Bernardi said the decision "provides guidance to all New Jersey prosecutors who contemplate the use of such evidence in the future." But, the prosecutor added, his office remains convinced Skinner is guilty. "We stand ready to retry Mr. Skinner on his outstanding attempted murder charge."
Skinner is currently being held in the Burlington County Jail on $250,850 bail. His bail will be reassessed at an upcoming Superior Court hearing. Coe said it could take a couple of weeks before lawyers have a sense if he will be released or if prosecutors will attempt to appeal the decision.
Read the court's opinion, and Skinner's lyrics...