Art may have seemed to imitate life just enough to convict a rap artist of attempted murder.
In the trial of Vonte Skinner, a reputed drug-gang enforcer accused of shooting another man over a money dispute, the jury was allowed to hear snippets of violent lyrics written under his work name, “Threat.”
“In the block wars I’m a vet. In the hood I’m a threat. It’s written on my arm and signed in blood on my tech,” one verse goes. “Yo, look in my eyes, you can see death comin’ quick. Look in my palms, you can see what I’m gunnin’ with. I play no games when it comes to this war shit.”
“A (racial epithet) wouldn’t listen so I hit him with the Smithen; hauled off 15 rounds, seven missed him; Two to the mask and six to the ribs, lifted and flipped him. The safe street squad found him, half his shell missin,” goes another.
Skinner, of Willingboro, was convicted of attempted murder and aggravated assault in the Nov. 8, 2005, shooting of Lamont Peterson, who was left paralyzed from the waist down. He drew a 30-year prison term.
A split Appellate Division panel reversed, finding the lyrics’ probative value was outweighed by the risk of undue prejudice. The state appealed and the Supreme Court heard arguments on Wednesday.
“The lyrics were relevant,” going to Skinner’s motive and intent, said Assistant Burlington County Prosecutor Jennifer Paszkiewicz.
Justice Jaynee LaVecchia asked whether writing violent lyrics was a crime or a bad act.
Pasckiewicz said no, but Skinner’s lyrics closely mirrored the shooting. That was why Superior Court Judge Thomas Smith Jr. admitted them, she said.
Justice Barry Albin noted some of the lyrics were actually written years before the shooting occurred. How, he asked, can they be relevant?
Not all of the lyrics were that old, Paszkiewicz replied.
“Where is the connective tissue?” Albin asked.
“The defendant’s writing reflected how he saw himself,” Paszkiewicz said.
Justice Anne Patterson asked if the lyrics were “aspirational.”
“That could be the case,” Paszkiewicz said. “He glamorized that lifestyle in his writing.”
Deputy Attorney General Joseph Glyn, of the amicus Attorney General’s Office, said there is nothing wrong in writing lyrics with a theme of violence, but these were different.
“The lyrics showed what he thinks and believes,” he said. “That’s why they’re relevant.”
By that standard, a lot of authors might be worried, LaVecchia suggested.
Glyn disagreed, saying no one would believe Johnny Cash actually shot a man in Reno just to watch him die after he wrote “Folsom Prison Blues.”
Assistant Deputy Public Defender Jason Coe said allowing the jury to consider the lyrics led to “massive prejudice. They had nothing to do with what actually happened,” he said.
Coe said the Public Defender’s Office is not advocating for a per se ban on the introduction of a suspect’s writings, “but it needs to be much more relevant and specific.”
Skinner claimed he had nothing to do with the shooting, but Albin asked if the lyrics could be admitted into evidence if Skinner was claiming that the shooting was an accident.
Perhaps, Coe said, if the lyrics demonstrated that Skinner had a good knowledge of how guns work.
The New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union also participated as amicus. Its attorney, Ezra Rosenberg of Dechert in Princeton, said the case raises significant constitutional issues.
Smith’s ruling “could have a chilling effect on our most valuable and precious free speech rights,” he said, adding that lyrics like Skinner’s speak to the “hopelessness of the inner cities.”
Chief Justice Stuart Rabner asked whether writings could be admissible if they dovetail with the crime.
“There has to be a First Amendment analysis,” Rosenberg said. “That might mean that in most cases it’s not going to come in.”
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