Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Locked Up For Lyrics

Even though the vast majority of gangster rap songs are nothing more than ridiculous narratives based on imagination, law endorsement has begun to take these violent boasts seriously. As case after case of "when keeping it real goes wrong" begins to emerge we must ask ourselves if free speech is really free.

This week the Supreme Court of New Jersey is scheduled to hear final arguments in State v. Skinner, a case that could have a far-reaching impact on the criminal justice system.

The case reflects an alarming new trend in which lyrics by amateur rappers are used against them as evidence in criminal prosecutions. There are no finger prints, no witnesses, no murder weapons, and the music is used as proof of a confession.

Vonte Skinner, an admitted drug dealer and wannabe rapper, was arrested after a 2005 shooting and was found guilty in 2008 of attempted murder. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison, largely on the basis of rap lyrics composed prior to the 2005 incident.

Here's a sample from the 13 pages of lyrics in question, which were found by police in his girlfriend's car and used as evidence of Skinner's motive and tendency toward violence:

Yo, look in my eyes 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.
If death was a jacket, you would see how the floor fits.
Crackin' your chest when I show you how the force spits,

Mak'in your mother wish she should have had an abortion.

 Skinner's conviction was overturned in 2012 by an appellate court that said the lyrics should not have been admitted as evidence. Now the Supreme Court of New Jersey will give it's final review.

But regardless of the outcome in New Jersey, this prosecutorial tactic has gained momentum elsewhere. The Supreme Court of Nevada ruled last summer that rap lyrics can be allowed as evidence.

What we are now seeing is creative work by prosecutors to send black and brown males to prison who are also alleged criminals. Such use of song lyrics often prejudices juries by stereotyping the accused person as the personification of the character or caricature within the lyrics. Thus making the fiction seem as if it is fact. 

As with the New Jersey case, the most extreme examples of this legal tactic rely solely on the lyrics, which are usually unassociated with the alleged crime, as the linchpin that proves guilt and sends the defendant to prison.

Let's be clear: Any defendant who is proved guilty beyond a reasonable doubt with sound evidence is a criminal and should receive punishment. Yet rap lyrics are not credible witnesses. 

So the next time you decide to get on the mic and spit a hot 16 about how many people you've killed.......allegedly. Just remember that your words can and will be used against you in a court of law.


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