New Jersey v. SkinnerAnnotate this Case
At trial on attempted murder and related charges, a State's witness against defendant Vonte Skinner was permitted to read to the jury, at great length, violent and profane rap lyrics that had been written by defendant before the events at issue. There was no assertion at trial that the violence-laden verses were in any way revealing of some specific factual connection that strongly tied defendant to the underlying incident. Nevertheless, the State maintained that the lyrics helped to demonstrate defendant’s "motive and intent" in connection with the offense because the rap lyrics addressed a street culture of violence and retribution that fit with the State’s view of defendant’s role in the attempted murder. The Appellate Division reversed defendant’s conviction based on the admission of the rap lyrics into evidence in defendant’s trial. In reaching its conclusion, the panel used an N.J.R.E. 404(b) analysis and determined that the prejudicial impact of defendant’s rap lyrics vastly outweighed any potential probative value. The Supreme Court affirmed, finding that admission of the lyrics constituted highly prejudicial evidence against him that bore little or no probative value as to any motive or intent behind the attempted murder offense with which he was charged. "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. Fictional forms of inflammatory self-expression, such as poems, musical compositions, and other like writings about bad acts, wrongful acts, or crimes, are not properly evidential unless the writing reveals a strong nexus between the specific details of the artistic composition and the circumstances of the underlying offense for which a person is charged, and the probative value of that evidence outweighs its apparent prejudicial impact. In the weighing process, trial courts should consider the existence of other evidence that can be used to make the same point. When admissible, such evidence should be carefully redacted to ensure that irrelevant and inflammatory content is not needlessly presented to the jury."