Burlington County, NJ Law Blog

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Bad Rap? Convicted Man Gets New Trial Because of Prosecutor's Use of Song Lyrics

A Burlington County man convicted of attempted murder will get a new trial, thanks to a unanimous ruling by the New Jersey Supreme Court.  Rapper and drug dealer Vonte Skinner had appealed his conviction on the grounds the prosecution unfairly used his violent rap lyrics at trial to influence the jury.  The New Jersey Supreme Court upheld a lower court's ruling that the lyrics were highly prejudicial and had no evidentiary value.

Skinner had received a 30-year sentence for the 2005 shooting of Lamont Peterson.  Shot in the head, neck and torso, Peterson survived but was paralyzed from the waist down.  The two men had been associates in a drug-dealing operation in Willingboro, New Jersey.  Accused by the victim, Skinner admitted being present at the shooting but denied firing the shots.  The gun used was never recovered.

During the trial, prosecutors asked a police officer to read from thirteen pages of violent rap lyrics that Skinner had written at least four years before the crime occurred.  The Supreme Court rejected the prosecution's claim that these lines were evidence of the defendant's state of mind.  They cited Bob Marley's song "I Shot the Sheriff" and Edgar Allan Poe's "'The Tell-Tale Heart" to make their point that artistic expression should not be considered proof of an actual crime.  The court opined that, though irrelevant to the case, some of Skinner's rap lyrics might be so distasteful to jurors that they would be more inclined to vote for a conviction.

A spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union praised the decision for its thoroughness and hailed it as a victory for free speech.  The court's detailed opinion could have an impact on the thinking of courts in other states.  There are currently about twenty similar cases around the country involving prosecutors' use of rap lyrics to buttress their cases against criminal defendants.

The case also is also a reminder that, when charged of a crime, a defendant may find that his entire life is on trial.  Only a vigorous and pro-active defense can prevent prosecutors from bringing in inflammatory but irrelevant information to get a conviction.  The experienced Burlington County, New Jersey criminal defense attorneys at Sitzler & Sitzler fight hard to make sure that a case is tried on the merits and that prosecutors are not allowed to poison the minds of jurors.  If you have been accused of a crime or worry you might be, contact us at (609)267-1101 today for a free consultation.

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