When Vonte Skinner was convicted of attempted murder in 2008, the evidence against him included 13 pages of violent rap lyrics. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison, but four years later, an appellate court ruled that the lyrics weren’t admissible evidence—and it overturned his conviction. New Jersey’s Supreme Court will hear the case next week, and in the New York Times, Erik Nielson and Charis Kubrin argue that the appellate court was right. "As expert witnesses who have testified in such cases, we have observed firsthand how prosecutors misrepresent rap music to judges and juries" who know little about it.
Prosecutors often suggest that the lyrics are autobiographical, even though "nobody believes that Johnny Cash shot a man in Reno or that Bret Easton Ellis carried out the gory murders described in American Psycho." With rap, however, things are more complex, because rappers often inhabit a character aligned with their lyrics even when they’re not performing. That makes it "easy to conflate these artists with their art." It’s even easier "when that art reinforces stereotypes about young men of color—who are almost exclusively the defendants in these cases—as violent, hypersexual, and dangerous." It's time to keep lyrics out of the courtroom. Click for Nielson and Kubrin’s full piece. (Read more Vonte Skinner stories.)