Amicus is dedicated to Vonte Skinner and all others who have had their own artistic works used against them. The text is taken from an Amicus Brief submitted to the Supreme Court of New Jersey by the ACLU-New Jersey on behalf of Vonte Skinner. Skinner was the defendant in a trial where the only hard evidence against him were his own rap lyrics, which had general references to crimes of a similar nature to the one he was accused of; he was convicted of attempted murder. The text of the Amicus brief has been arranged into a narrative by the composer.
Vonte Skinner was accused of the attempted murder of Lamont Peterson in November 2005, allegedly shooting Peterson multiple times at close range with a 9-millimeter handgun. Skinner’s rap lyrics were found in the back of the car he was driving at the time of his arrest. The lyrics were written in the first person, with the narrator named ‘Threat,’ a word that also happens to be tattooed on Skinner’s arm. The lyrics recount in graphic detail acts of violence that ‘Threat’ has committed or anticipates committing. The lyrics were written anywhere from two months to four years before the shooting of Peterson. None were written after the crime. There is no mention of any specifics relating to the crime. Nonetheless, the court permitted the State to read into evidence thirteen pages of lyrics. Mr. Skinner was convicted of the attempted murder of Mr. Peterson.
As is particularly common in the ‘gangsta’ sub-genre of rap, the lyrics are profanity-laden, and replete with misogynistic, sexist, and racist language, images, and epithets; they graphically depict a world of brutal and unremitting violence. However repugnant, these are artistic expressions entitled to constitutional protection. Moreover, they are expressions of political and social commentary, sitting on the highest rung of First Amendment hierarchy. 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. However visceral, rap lyrics are statements of political protest: a form of ‘black urban renewal’ in the face of ‘meaningless jobs for young people, mounting police brutality, and increasingly draconian depictions of young inner city residents.’
This Court previously held that the First Amendment prohibited the use of evidence that proved nothing more than a defendant’s possession of abstract beliefs. This Court should instruct lower courts that writing such as these are entitled to protections under the First amendment.