Rap lyrics aren't evidence, court rules

Posted: August 06, 2014

THE LYRICS Vonte Skinner scribbled in his notebooks weren't pretty, but the New Jersey Supreme Court said the rhymes about "bloodshed, death, maiming and dismemberment" shouldn't have been used as evidence against him.

Skinner, 36, of Burlington Township, remains in prison, accused of shooting Lamont Peterson in Willingboro on Nov. 8, 2005, but the Supreme Court ruled yesterday that his rap lyrics could not be used as evidence when the Burlington County Prosecutor's Office retries his case.

"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," Justice Jaynee LaVecchia wrote.

Rapping under the name "Threat," Skinner had lyrics that included, "Yo, look in my eyes. You can see death comin' quick. Look in my palms, you can see what I'm gunnin' with," and they were used against him during an attempted-murder trial. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison in 2008, and the New Jersey Appellate Division overturned his conviction in August 2012.

Ezra Rosenberg, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union who was representing Skinner, said the ruling was a victory for "free expression."

"It's a thoughtful opinion that provides clear guidance to the courts as to how they should handle attempts to admit evidence of artistic expression," Rosenberg said in an email.

Burlington County Prosecutor Robert Bernardi said his office plans to retry Skinner.

"This decision provides guidance to all New Jersey prosecutors who contemplate the use of such evidence in the future," he said in a statement.

On Twitter: @JasonNark

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