KNIGHT: ACLU sings harmony with violent lyricist

Aiming to beat the rap in New Jersey

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In a case of attempted murder headed for the New Jersey Supreme Court, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) wants violent lyrics written by the accused to be protected as “free speech” and barred from the courtroom.

Vonte L. Skinner, whose conviction for attempted murder was overturned in August 2012, had sheets of rap lyrics in his car during his arrest for a 2005 shooting that left an acquaintance paralyzed from the waist down.

The lyrics, written some months or years before the incident, included “four slugs drillin’ your cheek to blow your face off and leave your brain caved in the street.” Another lyric: “A [person] wouldn’t listen, so I hit him with the Smithen.”

In a brief to the New Jersey Supreme Court, the ACLU contends, “That a rap artist wrote lyrics seemingly embracing the world of violence is no more reason to ascribe to him a motive and intent to commit violent acts than to … indict Johnny Cash for having ‘shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.’”

Well, maybe, except that Cash, now deceased, wasn’t facing an attempted-murder charge. Maybe if he had, or if he had been an alleged enforcer for a drug ring, as was Mr. Skinner, a court would have found the lyrics relevant.

In its brief, the ACLU of New Jersey, which claims 15,000 members in the Garden State, acknowledges that an analysis found that in 14 of 18 instances in other states, judges allowed rap lyrics into evidence.

However, in the New Jersey case, the brief argues, the lyrics “are no more relevant to Mr. Skinner’s general “motive and intent” to commit a violent crime than would be the lyrics of ‘I Shot the Sheriff’ to Bob Marley’s or those of ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ to Paul McCartney’s .”

Why not throw Rogers and Hammerstein in there while we’re at it? Or the always quotable Shakespeare? Again, perhaps if the late Bob Marley had been accused of actually shooting someone or had Mr. McCartney allegedly hefted a hammer over someone’s head, their lyrics might be relevant.

According to the Associated Press, “After an initial trial ended without a verdict, Skinner was convicted at a second trial of shooting Lamont Peterson multiple times at close range in 2005, leaving Peterson paralyzed from the waist down. Peterson was reluctant initially to identify Skinner as the shooter, but eventually testified at the trial that Skinner was the assailant. Peterson testified the two men sold drugs as part of a three-man ‘team’ and developed a dispute when Peterson began skimming some of the profits for himself.”

An appellate court overturned the guilty verdict, commenting in a 2-1 ruling that, “This was not a case in which circumstantial evidence of defendant’s writings were critical to show his motive … . This brutal shooting bespoke intent to kill.”

The appellate court’s ruling noted that the trial jurors, who I think deserve a special place in Heaven, endured a long rendition of Mr. Skinner’s lyrics: “The trial transcript of the reading, which was not interrupted at any point, runs for 13 pages of 25 lines each. The lyrics are generally written in a first-person narrative, with several identifying the narrator as ‘Threat’ . Defendant has the moniker ‘Threat’ tattooed on his arm … .

“The lyrics as redacted and read to the jury recount ‘Threat’s‘ violent acts — for example, shootings, knifings and rapes committed while ‘Threat’ is forcing members of the woman’s family to watch. The lyrics describe the acts with disturbing metaphors, and they include profanity, expletives and odious racial epithets.”

This is the kind of stuff that a Cornell sociology professor would find refreshingly honest.

Basically, the majority held that Mr. Skinner’s obscene lyrics were so shocking that this may have prejudiced the jury against him.

In a dissent, Judge Carmen Alvarez wrote that the lyrics’ relevance to motive and intent outweighed any prejudicial effect, and that “defendant’s songs narrated events similar to the conduct which resulted in the charged offenses.”

Indeed, the ACLU brief states that “the lyrics recount, in graphic detail, using violent metaphors, racial epithets and profanity, acts of violence that ‘Threat’ has committed or anticipates committing.”

No date has been set for the appeal in State v. Skinner, but when the case is heard, the questions before the New Jersey Supreme Court, according to its website, are whether the prosecutor’s closing argument was inappropriate and “Did admission of defendant’s rap lyrics constitute reversible error because their probative value was outweighed by the risk of undue prejudice?”

A fair question. There is a valid evidentiary argument to be made about whether or not to admit this kind of material. However, the ACLU’s artistic comparison of lurid, violent rap to the country, pop and reggae genres is enough to “leave your brain caved.”

Robert Knight is senior fellow for the American Civil Rights Union and a columnist for The Washington Times.

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