Should Rap Lyrics Be Admissable Evidence?

from the bust-a-rhyme,-do-a-dime dept

Other than when it's on television or in a movie, the legal system is a place where rules are supposed to be followed so that justice might be done. Legal dramas where attorneys get creative with how to prosecute alleged criminals make for interesting entertainment, but nobody facing legal action wants to see much in the way of a deviation from the accepted practices. Yet, that seems to be what's happened in cases involving anyone who has engaged in rap music.

Well, this is now coming to a head in the Supreme Court of New Jersey, which will hear a case to decide if prosecutors should be relying heavily on rap lyrics in their cases.

At issue is a prosecutor’s extensive use of rap lyrics, composed by a man named Vonte Skinner, as evidence of his involvement in a 2005 shooting. During Mr. Skinner’s trial in 2008, the prosecutor read the jury 13 pages of violent lyrics written by Mr. Skinner, even though all of the lyrics were composed before the shooting (in some cases, years before) and none of them mentioned the victim or specific details about the crime.
It seems hard to justify the use of lyrics like this as anything other than a cynical attempt to influence the jury with what is likely unfair character assassination. Any "gangster rap" artist is going to have lyrics in their songs that read like the manifesto of a criminal. That, however, does not make that person a criminal. Music is art, after all, and nobody goes around suggesting that Gwar actually wants to eat your children, that Martin Scorsese is part of the mob, or that John Carmack murders uber-demons in his spare time. Gangster rap has grown up and been commercialized so that it's as authentic as Kraft American Singles cheese and mostly as palatable. Some gangster rappers are as "gangster" as the teenage surburbanite children who listen to it so faithfully. In the case of Skinner, the other evidence used against him was testimony by witnesses that told more stories than Stephen King. Still, he was convicted by the jury, though that conviction was later overturned.
But in 2012, the conviction was overturned by an appellate court that ruled that the lyrics should never have been admitted as evidence. The majority opinion stated, “We have a significant doubt about whether the jurors would have found defendant guilty if they had not been required to listen to the extended reading of these disturbing and highly prejudicial lyrics.” The state appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court.
Which is why that case is now before New Jersey's Supreme Court. And, if studies are any indication, they should probably find that heavy reliance on such lyrics prejudice the jury beyond the realm of justice.
To address this question, Stuart Fischoff, a psychologist at California State University, Los Angeles, conducted a study in the late 1990s to measure the impact of gangsta rap lyrics on juries. Participants were given basic biographical information about a hypothetical 18-year-old black male, but only some were shown a set of his violent, sexually explicit rap lyrics. Those who read the lyrics were significantly more likely to believe the man was capable of committing a murder than those who did not.
So, where's the line? It's not an easy question to answer, because these lyrics and thoughts most often do come from the accused in these cases, yet the fact that they're artistic expression leaves plenty of room for debate on their usefulness in the case or authenticity in general. It's worth noting that no other genre of art is used in this manner in such a widespread way as rap music. What does that mean? Likely that enthusiastic prosecutors with their win/loss totals in their mind's eye are using them because they haven't been told not to yet. Perhaps that will change soon.

Filed Under: evidence, rap lyrics


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  1. icon
    Leigh Beadon (profile), 21 Jan 2014 @ 10:49pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Garbage in, garbage out

    In relation to your position, I am being relatively blind to the degrees. And that is the moral question: which is more important - establishing the standard, or keeping the fringes open?

    How can you have a "standard" without first learning about degrees and deciding where to draw that line? Is your "standard" simply "gangsta rap" -- a term you haven't defined and couldn't define since you don't listen to the genre?

    I have heard enough rap lyrics to write off the entire genre. I have seen other lyrics quoted in newspapers. I see the kind of lyrics mentioned in the article that were used as evidence. That's enough points outside of hearsay for me to establish a starting point.

    Are we now into all rap, not just the already ill-defined "gangsta rap"? Rap just means rapid vocals that are predominantly rhythmic with little or no melody. It would be easy to pick lyrics to make the case that all "rock" is misogynistic too, I suppose.

    But perhaps instead of focusing on the parts of my comments that you don't like, we could establish what our common ground is, if any. I'm not trying to change your mind. But I do have personal experience from growing up in a violent area about just what makes the dogs smell blood. And that remains, fo me, much more important than whether some "artiste" can throw around some terms that he wants to redefine. "I don't think that word means what you think it does."

    I'm not sure we do have common ground... It's amazing to me that your words positively drip with condescension towards an art form you openly admit to having never experienced for yourself. You talk about "gray areas" and "main principles" but you haven't the faintest clue whether the few examples you've cherrypicked from newspapers and snippets of songs are one or the other.

    There are people out there who think any and all depictions of violence are socially damaging -- some, I'm certain, who are offended by the Lasansky works for example and would argue that no matter their intent, any portrayal of those atrocities is negative. There are those who argue that war stories both true and fictional should not be shared since they romanticize and thus perpetrate war. There are huge groups that oppose any portrayal or even mention of any sexual act int he media. Those same groups often oppose any use of profanity and, even, any portrayal of activities that defy certain religious values -- all on the grounds that these things are damaging to society, and that the supposedly "obvious" negative effects they have on viewers trump any consideration of free speech. Such groups often target entertainers and eagerly catalogue their past creations to make a case that they are corrupt and morally bankrupt -- often with minimal context and highly selective quoting. In other words, the precise argument that you are making.

    So, is this just a matter of drawing the line where you think it needs to be drawn? You don't think the gray areas are important to consider -- there are many others who would say you're too lenient and are considering them too much.

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