Other than when it’s on television or in a movie, the legal system is a place where rules are supposed to be followed so that justice might be done. Legal dramas where attorneys get creative with how to prosecute alleged criminals make for interesting entertainment, but nobody facing legal action wants to see much in the way of a deviation from the accepted practices. Yet, that seems to be what’s happened in cases involving anyone who has engaged in rap music.
Well, this is now coming to a head in the Supreme Court of New Jersey, which will hear a case to decide if prosecutors should be relying heavily on rap lyrics in their cases.
At issue is a prosecutor’s extensive use of rap lyrics, composed by a man named Vonte Skinner, as evidence of his involvement in a 2005 shooting. During Mr. Skinner’s trial in 2008, the prosecutor read the jury 13 pages of violent lyrics written by Mr. Skinner, even though all of the lyrics were composed before the shooting (in some cases, years before) and none of them mentioned the victim or specific details about the crime.
It seems hard to justify the use of lyrics like this as anything other than a cynical attempt to influence the jury with what is likely unfair character assassination. Any “gangster rap” artist is going to have lyrics in their songs that read like the manifesto of a criminal. That, however, does not make that person a criminal. Music is art, after all, and nobody goes around suggesting that Gwar actually wants to eat your children, that Martin Scorsese is part of the mob, or that John Carmack murders uber-demons in his spare time. Gangster rap has grown up and been commercialized so that it’s as authentic as Kraft American Singles cheese and mostly as palatable. Some gangster rappers are as “gangster” as the teenage surburbanite children who listen to it so faithfully. In the case of Skinner, the other evidence used against him was testimony by witnesses that told more stories than Stephen King. Still, he was convicted by the jury, though that conviction was later overturned.
But in 2012, the conviction was overturned by an appellate court that ruled that the lyrics should never have been admitted as evidence. The majority opinion stated, “We have a significant doubt about whether the jurors would have found defendant guilty if they had not been required to listen to the extended reading of these disturbing and highly prejudicial lyrics.” The state appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court.
Which is why that case is now before New Jersey’s Supreme Court. And, if studies are any indication, they should probably find that heavy reliance on such lyrics prejudice the jury beyond the realm of justice.
To address this question, Stuart Fischoff, a psychologist at California State University, Los Angeles, conducted a study in the late 1990s to measure the impact of gangsta rap lyrics on juries. Participants were given basic biographical information about a hypothetical 18-year-old black male, but only some were shown a set of his violent, sexually explicit rap lyrics. Those who read the lyrics were significantly more likely to believe the man was capable of committing a murder than those who did not.
So, where’s the line? It’s not an easy question to answer, because these lyrics and thoughts most often do come from the accused in these cases, yet the fact that they’re artistic expression leaves plenty of room for debate on their usefulness in the case or authenticity in general. It’s worth noting that no other genre of art is used in this manner in such a widespread way as rap music. What does that mean? Likely that enthusiastic prosecutors with their win/loss totals in their mind’s eye are using them because they haven’t been told not to yet. Perhaps that will change soon.
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