Rap Lyrics Are Not Evidence Of Prior Crimes
- August 20, 2014
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Vonte Skinner was charged with attempted murder (N.J.S.A. 2C:5-1a(3), 2C:11-3a(1)); aggravated assault resulting in serious bodily injury (N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1b(1)); and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon (N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1b(2)); unlawful possession of a deadly weapon (N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5); and possession of a weapon with an unlawful purpose (N.J.S.A. 2C:39-4a) and convicted of attempted murder (N.J.S.A. 2C:5-1a(3), 2C:11-3a(1)); aggravated assault resulting in serious bodily injury (N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1b(1)); and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon (N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1b(2)). Skinner received an extended term of 30 years in prison and subject to certain parole ineligibility and supervision under the No Early Release Act (NERA) (N.J.S.A. 2C:43-7.2). Skinner’s case arose as a result of the 2005 shooting of Lamont Peterson multiple times at close range with a handgun. Evidence at the scene, including a cell phone belonging to Skinner, led to his arrest. During Skinner’s arrest, while driving someone else’s vehicle, his rap lyrics were recovered on the back seat of the vehicle. Peterson survived and advised the police that Peterson and Skinner both sold drugs for Brandon C. Rothwell. After Skinner joined the team as the third man, Peterson’s profits fell and he began keeping some of Rothwell’s money. Peterson and Skinner both testified that on the night of the shooting they had been in cell phone contact multiple times to arrange a meeting during which Skinner was to buy cocaine from Peterson. When Peterson arrived to meet Skinner, Rothwell was with Skinner. Peterson remembered seeking Skinner and the gun but no other details. Skinner testified that just as Peterson was about to give him the drugs he heard a gunshot and he and Peterson both ran off in different directions. Both sides offered witnesses at trial giving conflicting testimony. The State’s main evidence was the Defendant’s rap lyrics. The jury was not advised that the lyrics were written over several years but did hear an extensive portion of the lyrics and was made aware that the lyrics were in the first person view of a narrator named “Threat” which is a name Skinner has tattooed on his arm. The lyrics described multiple violent acts by “Threat”. The matter was appealed by the Defendant based in part on the reading of Skinner’s rap lyrics to jurors by the prosecution for the purpose of establishing motive and intent on the part of Skinner. The Defendant claimed the lyrics were not properly authenticated and inadmissible under N.J.R.E. 404(b) due to substantial prejudice to defendant outweighing their probative value. The NJ Appellate Division cited State v. Crumb, 307 N.J. Super. 204 (App. Div. 1997) and State v. Koskovich, 168 NJ. 448 (2001) which held that creative writing is merely expressive and does not constitute bad acts themselves and therefore writing comes within N.J.R.E. 404(b). The NJ Appellate Division determined the reading of the lyrics to be prejudicial to Skinner and prohibited by N.J.R.E. 404(b). The NJ Supreme Court heard State v. Skinner and rendered its decision on August 4, 2014. The Justices found that there was no real connection between the lyrics and the murder other than to inaccurately portray his depiction of street violence to establish Defendant’s motive and intent and upheld the decision of the NJ Appellate Division that the lyrics were highly prejudicial and of minimal probative value. The NJ Supreme Court heard the State’s argument that, under Joynes v. State, 797 A.2d 673, 677 (Del. 2002) that the act of creating rap lyrics is not, in and of itself, a “bad act” and should be governed under that standard of relevance under N.J.R.E. 401. The Court disagreed reasoning that N.J.R.E.404(b) is to protect a defendant from evidence which proves little while doing substantial harm. The Court’s primary analysis of admissibility under N.J.R.E. 404(b) was analysis of the 4 prongs of State v. Cofield, 127 N.J. 328, 336 (1992): (1) that the other crime, wrong or bad act evidence pertains to some material issue in dispute in the instant matter; (2) the other crime is similar in kind and reasonably close in time to the offense charged ; (3) proof the evidence of the other crime must be clear and convincing; and (4) any probative value is not outweighed by prejudice. If you are charged with a crime, there are strict limits to evidence which the State may use against you in making its case. To protect your freedom and rights if you are charged with any violent crime, you should consult with experienced criminal defense counsel immediately. For more information about murder, sexual assault, drugs, weapons charges or other serious crimes in New Jersey visit DarlingFirm.com. This blog is for informational purposes only and not intended to replace the advice of an attorney.