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OFF BEAT: Violent hip-hop lyrics help New Jersey man delay murder rap


It seems the age-old quandary of whether life imitates art will not be settled in the criminal courts of New Jersey.

The state’s Supreme Court on Monday granted a second retrial for a man convicted in 2008 of attempted first-degree murder, ruling that the prosecution’s use of violent rap lyrics authored by the defendant as evidence unfairly prejudiced the jury against him.

Vonte Skinner was charged in 2006 with shooting Lamont Peterson seven times over a debt to a drug dealer they both allegedly worked for. The shooting left Mr. Peterson paralyzed below the waist, according to New Jersey court documents.

During his first two criminal trials — the first ending in a mistrial and the second in a conviction and 30-year prison sentence — New Jersey prosecutors used notebooks containing rap lyrics found in Mr. Skinner’s car as evidence of his capacity for violent crime.

On Monday, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled unanimously that fictional lyrics or other artistic materials cannot be used as evidence in a criminal proceeding unless they are directly related to the particular offense at issue.

“One would not presume that Bob Marley, who wrote the well-known song ‘I Shot the Sheriff,’ actually shot a sheriff, or that Edgar Allan Poe buried a man beneath his floorboards, as depicted in his short story ‘The Tell-Tale Heart,’ simply because of their respective artistic endeavors on those subjects,” Judge Jaynee LaVecchia wrote in the court’s opinion. “The Court reasons that defendant’s lyrics should receive no different treatment.”

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