NJ Supreme Court Says Rap Lyrics Can't Be Introduced As Evidence Unless Directly Linked To Criminal Actions

from the no-more-punishment-of-thoughtcrime dept

The ACLU (which submitted an amicus brief in this case) breaks the news that the New Jersey Supreme Court has ruled that someone’s artistic speech can’t be introduced as evidence of criminal intent — at least not without meeting some very specific guidelines.

The New Jersey Supreme Court today issued a decision holding that it was improper for the State to submit rap lyrics to a jury in a criminal case where the lyrics were not directly connected to the crime itself. The Court recognized rap lyrics – including violent and profane rap lyrics – as a form of artistic expression, but one that many people find distasteful, which could improperly prejudice a jury who reads them.

In the case under discussion, the prosecution submitted rap lyrics written by Vonte Skinner not as evidence he committed the crime with which he was charged, but just as a general indicator of his motive and intent. By doing so, the state was able to convince a jury to return a guilty verdict on multiple charges.

Defendant was charged with first-degree attempted murder and related charges, and, before trial, he requested a preliminary hearing to contest the admissibility of his rap lyrics. The court concluded that the lyrics were relevant because they tended to prove the State’s theory of the case and found them admissible under N.J.R.E. 404(b) because they provided insight into defendant’s alleged motive and intent. Accordingly, the court ordered that redacted portions of defendant’s lyrics would be admitted into evidence. Defendant’s first trial resulted in a mistrial after the jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict.

Prior to his retrial, defendant renewed his objection to the admissibility of the rap lyrics, and the court again found them admissible. At defendant’s second trial, a detective testifying for the State read to the jury extensive passages from defendant’s lyrics, depicting violence, bloodshed, death, and dismemberment unconnected to the specific facts of the attempted-murder charge against defendant… The jury convicted defendant of attempted murder, aggravated assault, and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, and the trial court imposed an aggregate thirty-year sentence with an eighty-five percent parole disqualifier.

The appeals court reversed this decision, finding that the admission of Skinner’s rap lyrics as evidence had a “prejudicial impact [that] vastly outweighed any probative value.” The state appealed this decision, bringing it to the state Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court upheld the appeals court’s findings, noting that the history of artistic expression is littered with violent narratives unconnected to actual criminal activity.

In assessing the probative value of defendant’s fictional lyrics, the Court notes that probative evidence may not be found in an individual’s artistic endeavors absent a strong nexus between specific details of the artistic composition and the circumstances of the offense for which the evidence is being adduced. The Court explains that the difficulty in identifying probative value in fictional or other forms of artistic self-expressive endeavors is that 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,” simply because of their respective artistic endeavors on those subjects. The Court reasons that defendant’s lyrics should receive no different treatment. This approach is in accord with other jurisdictions that have considered similar questions. The Court concludes that the violent, profane, and disturbing rap lyrics authored by defendant constitute highly prejudicial evidence against him that bore little or no probative value as to any motive or intent behind the attempted murder offense with which he was charged. The admission of defendant’s inflammatory rap verses, a genre that certain members of society view as art and others view as distasteful and descriptive of a mean-spirited culture, risked poisoning the jury against defendant.

That last sentence distills the motivation behind the growing popularity of this prosecution tactic. A jury of supposed peers is going to contain any number of people who find rap music and its subject matter offensive and an “indicator” of a person’s criminal intent, whether or not such intent exists. If the court had gone the other way, there is no doubt that rap lyrics would be submitted en masse for easy wins. Fortunately, this decision directs prosecutors to more strenuously weigh their evidence before submission.

In sum, rap lyrics, or like fictional material, may not be used as evidence of motive and intent except when such material has a direct connection to the specifics of the offense for which it is offered in evidence and the evidence’s probative value is not outweighed by its apparent prejudice. In the weighing process, courts should consider the existence of other evidence that can be used to make the same point. When admissible, such evidence should be carefully redacted to ensure that irrelevant, inflammatory content is not needlessly presented to the jury.

Because rap lyrics tend to deal with the holy trinity of guns, drugs and money, prosecutors will still feel strongly tempted to introduce these written words as background color, if nothing else. The court’s directions, while aimed at prosecutors, will likely have a greater effect on lower courts’ standards for evidence admission. A state Supreme Court decision that doesn’t specifically forbid the introduction of rap lyrics as evidence will just be probed for weaknesses by enterprising prosecutors, the same group that often finds someone’s expressed thoughts to be inseparable from their deeds.

The case also has limited bearing on a similar set of circumstances currently being examined by the US Supreme Court, where a man with a history of making outrageous comments on social media sites — like expressing his desire to kill his estranged ex-wife or shoot up a school — is now finding his words being used against him as evidence of criminal intent. This person has also referred to some of his postings as “rap lyrics” and has noted that much of what has been submitted as evidence has been taken out of context — that context being the accused’s long history of running his mouth carelessly on a variety of social media platforms.

Unlike Skinner, no physical crime has been committed. Instead, these postings have been treated as threats by prosecutors, which brings a different perspective to the proceedings. In this case, intent is the whole of the crime, rather than just one aspect of it and, as such, should be very carefully weighed unless the US Supreme Court wants to make criminals out of the Bob Marleys and Edgar Allan Poes scattered across the web.

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Comments on “NJ Supreme Court Says Rap Lyrics Can't Be Introduced As Evidence Unless Directly Linked To Criminal Actions”

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Anonymous Coward says:

What about books?

Haven’t there historically been cases when criminals have written stories or books which closely match crimes they had committed? I’m pretty sure I’ve heard of cases where someone’s “story” ended up matching events that had actually taken place, and those stories were used as evidence during a trial.

Perhaps this may change in the future once precedent has been set in case law.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: What about books?

That’s where this part comes in:

‘… the Court notes that probative evidence may not be found in an individual’s artistic endeavors absent a strong nexus between specific details of the artistic composition and the circumstances of the offense for which the evidence is being adduced.

So if someone accused of say, murder, also wrote a song, or story, where the fictional murder was strikingly similar to the real one, and included details of a murder not generally known to the public, something that would require either first-hand knowledge of the murder, or insane coincidence, then they can present it as evidence.

Simply writing violent lyrics, or a violent story, cannot be used against someone to ‘prove’ their guilt in a crime, the required ‘link’ between the two requires specific evidence.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: What about books?

What if a story was written previous to a crime being committed (attempted), but the crime was thwarted while circumstances leading up to that point were similar to the fictional story that was written?

Would that count as premeditation?

It seems in this specific case, the violent lyrics seemed to be used as “evidence” during an attempted murder trial where the prosecution is suggesting that these violent lyrics somehow prove that the individual planned to commit the crime.

Bergman (profile) says:

Re: What about books?

Yes, there have been. But they’re outnumbered thousands, possibly tens of thousands to one by the people who have written fiction that depicts crimes who never committed any crimes.

Ever played cops & robbers as a kid? Should that be taken as proof you intend to rob a bank? If a bank is robbed in your town, should you be arrested, charged with the crime and convicted on that ‘evidence’?

Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

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.

However, there’s a long and sordid history of rappers actually being involved in the sort of horrific gang violence that they glorify in their music, and writing their “art” from personal experience. What the court here calls a risk of “poisoning the jury against the defendant” could well be nothing more than showing them the actual truth.

While I agree that in general the creation of art should not be considered as evidence of criminality, a certain level of common sense should apply, and questions such as “is this specific class of art historically known to be strongly correlated with harm to others and actual criminality?” should be taken into consideration.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re:

You seem to have missed the very point of the quote you listed, and the court’s ruling in general.

Writing violent lyrics, or a violent story, is not an automatic indicator that the one who wrote them did a similar violent act, no matter if others in the genre have committed violent acts, so to use them as evidence in a case, even when they are completely unrelated, would unfairly bias the jury against the accused.

Lord_Unseen (profile) says:

Re: Re:

If the lyrics a prosecution would want to submit are written from personal experience, then it wouldn’t be difficult to line it up with actual events. If it doesn’t, connecting them with a crime is pure speculation, you know, the kind of thing that’s generally frowned upon in court.

Additionally rap is a much wider genre than you give it credit for. There are certainly a number of rappers writing from personal experience, but, there are much more writing fiction in the form of rap. Saying it is “strongly correlated with harm to others and actual criminality” is disingenuous.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

But you probably wouldn’t need specific lyrics to show the defendant is a rapper, which is what you claim holds importance.

The verdict seems completely reasonable: If you want to bring forth lyrics, they better be relevant to the case. Just colouring him as a lunatic, by selecting unusually revolting lyrics (whether or not taken out of context!) with no connection to the case serves as theater rather than a credible fact about the person.

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