Violent Rap Lyrics Penned by Defendant Unduly Prejudicial, NJ Supreme Court Finds

Supreme Court of New Jersey – In State v. SkinnerA-57/58-12 (N.J. Aug. 4, 2014) the Supreme Court of New Jersey affirmed the Appellate Division’s reversal of a defendant’s conviction for first-degree attempted murder and related charges.

Facts — Vonte Skinner was charged with shooting Lamont Peterson seven times. The State contended that Skinner shot Peterson because Peterson owed money to a drug dealer that Skinner was working for as “muscle.” After the shooting, police searched Skinner’s car and found three notebooks containing violent and profane rap lyrics glorifying murder and rape. Over objection by defendant, the trial court admitted the rap lyrics as evidence of Skinner’s motive and intent.

Holding – The Court determined that, contrary to the State’s contention, the lyrics did not establish that Skinner would resort to violence and instead caused undue prejudice. Utilizing the 4-part test for admitting “extrinsic evidence of other crimes or wrongs” pursuant to Rule 404(b) of the New Jersey Rules of Evidence established in State v. Cofield127 N.J. 328 (1992), the Court explained that merely writing violent rap lyrics is not a crime. “Nor is it a bad act to 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.” Opinion, p. 28. Particularly when the violent lyrics do not relate to the specific crime at issue, in this case the shooting of Peterson, the Court determined that the lyrics would merely inflame the jury and prejudice the defendant.

Reasoning – The Court distinguished State v. Koskovich168 N.J. 448 (2001), in which lyrics authored by the defendant were allowed into evidence as proof of a “thrill kill” motive. In Koskovich, unlike in Skinner, the lyrics admitted related directly to the crime as it occurred because it showed an intent to engage in a murder for the sheer excitement of killing. By contrast, in Skinner, the lyrics admitted were of a generally violent nature, rather than specific to the shooting of Peterson.