Vonte Skinner has been in jail for almost ten years. In a way, the fact that he’s been locked up so long is a testament to the power of his own words; it’s also, as the New Jersey Supreme Court wrote today, a complete injustice.
Skinner was arrested in 2005, and charged with the attempted murder of a drug dealer named Lamont Peterson. Peterson was shot at close range with a 9-millimeter gun on November 8, 2005; the attack left him paralyzed from the waist down. The gun itself was never recovered, but several cell phones left at the scene were.
One of those phones belonged to Vonte Skinner. Skinner never denied being at the scene–he told officers he was there to buy coke from Peterson. Skinner said he heard shots ring out shortly before the transaction took place and ran away.
Peterson ultimately fingered Skinner for the shooting, but it wasn’t his story (which changed several times) that ultimately convinced a jury to convict. It was Skinner’s own rap lyrics, written in a notebook recovered from the backseat of his girlfriend’s Chevy Malibu (the car he was driving when he was arrested nine days after the shooting) that judges believe turned jurors against him.
The problem is all of Skinner’s verses were written before the trial–in some cases, as many as 5 years prior. While many were graphic–“I suggest that you not rock me, cause head shots will leave you top sloppy and brains leakin’, frame tweakin’, and your family in the church talkin’ to the main Deacon”–they weren’t specific to the crime for which Skinner was being tried. That was one point Jason A. Coe, assistant deputy public defender representing Skinner, emphasized during oral arguments in April.
Today, the justices sided with Coe, writing, “Self-expressive fictional, poetic, lyrical, and like writings about bad acts, wrongful acts, or crimes generally should not be deemed evidential unless the writing bears probative value to the underlying offense for which a person is charged and the probative value of that evidence outweighs its prejudicial impact.”
That’s a big deal, says Ezra Rosenberg, who argued on behalf of the ACLU. (The ACLU, alarmed by what it saw as a violation of Skinner’s first amendment rights, filed an amicus brief in the case.) He was pleased too see the justices declare “extreme caution must be exercised when expressive work is involved, particularly when such expression involves social commentary, exaggeration, and fictional accounts.”
Rosenberg explains, “That goes beyond what is typically done in applying the rules of evidence. The court is recognizing that when expressive work is in involved there has to be even greater scrutiny.”
Coe was likewise pleased with the decision. “The court reached the correct result because the defendant’s writings had no connection to the charged offenses and because their admission served no purpose other than to prejudice the jury,” he said.
In statement on Burlington County Prosecutor Robert D. Bernardi said the decision “provides guidance to all New Jersey prosecutors who contemplate the use of such evidence in the future.” But, the prosecutor added, his office remains convinced Skinner is guilty. “We stand ready to retry Mr. Skinner on his outstanding attempted murder charge.”
Skinner is currently being held in the Burlington County Jail on $250,850 bail. His bail will be reassessed at an upcoming Superior Court hearing. Coe said it could take a couple of weeks before lawyers have a sense if he will be released or if prosecutors will attempt to appeal the decision.
Read the court’s opinion, and Skinner’s lyrics… [
A sample of Skinner’s lyrics:
“But these [people] keep testin my weapons. I hold my head just to keep from stressin’; Got beef, I can spit from a distance for instance; a [person] wouldn’t listen so I hit him with the Smithen; hauled off 15 rounds, seven missed him; Two to the mask and six to the ribs, lifted and flipped him. The safe street squad found him, half his shell missin. I play my position, fall back and watch [people] keep my enemies real. Close to my twin bitches, hollow heads in the back of they throats mercury drippin’. They spit sickness, poison a [person] right when they clip him. They don’t call me Threat for nothin’, so pay attention. This shit is real. You can find yourself missin’, cause [people] got kids to feed with no dishes. This concrete jungle keeps [people] holdin’ they pistols. Some silence it up to hear they shells whistle, but you can hear the screams when the slugs pierce the gristle. Blows out tissue. (Breaking News) Man gunned down by six youths, left him twisted, masked open and thoughts drippin’, his kids cryin’ and wife twitchin’. Where the turnkeys got 40 cowls for death missions and ya’ whack is ya’ strap, so [people] aim with precision. Cause I’m a grimy [person] that’ll cross a coffa’. Head on first round death by decision, layin’ ten count in ya’ vision. Blacks creepin’, mad silence, eternal sleepin’. The price you pay when you run in these streets and the [person] gets to drop one tone no beepin’, beep. For many years [people] thought shit was game until they frames got touched with flames, had they moms in the mortuaries screamin’ they names, grabbing they clothes, red soaked ravaged with holes, shakin’ your dormant body on the tables, that’s called cryin’ your name. Wonderin’ if you died in pain. Was it instant or did you feel the slugs fryin’ your veins. Noone will ever know cause the dead don’t speak when they flesh is touched with heat, slugs crush your dreams like that movies, die American me. Chokin’ a [person] if I ain’t the guns, I’m a poka [person].”
Streets of Rage
“[People] run around with a vest on they chests until the bullets enter they neck and exit they pecs. Clappin’ the Tech, now your block’s a track meet, neighbors dashin’ for steps and snatchin’ kids to their breasts. Take dudes out the game with two Tech’s clips are the ref. I’ll light your crib up with a Molotov, watch you run out the front door and hit ya’ with the Callos — Callosnicroff. Bent over the Smirnoff — Schear — Schearinoff, clutchin’ my balls, watchin’ you fall, blowin’ your mother [expletive] limbs off you. It’s got the gall to talk loose and try to brawl. It’s a whole new war game in the city where [people] die for dice games, ice chains, go to war with the Feds, and let the [expletive] pipes sing. Push or get pushed is the reason why we light things and block battles shatter the night scene, and lives cease young broads by the age of 19. Got five seeds, young boys guardin’ the block hard until light’s seem like night trains, I-95 with the white thing and trip beam, [people] die for six scenes and big dreams. So, run around with a vest on your chest. I got bullets that’ll enter your neck and exit your pecs, squeezin’ the Tech, turn blocks into track meets. Neighbors dashin’ for steps, snatchin’ kids to their breasts, takin’ [people] out the game with two Techs, my clip’s the ref (gun cocks, auto fire). The locker room is death.”
“On the block, I can box you down or straight razor ox you down, run in your crib with the four pound and pop your crown. Checkmate, put your face in the ground. I’ll drop your queen and pawn, [expletive – expletive] wastin’ around. They don’t call me Threat for nothin’. Prick, I’ll take your town and flood it with more white than the face on a clown. Threat is a menace that will serve slugs just like tennis ace you dudes.
I’m the hood. I’m the hood Sampras. Not a fifth and a bad chick. Like Alyssa O’Neill with the .380 Steel; a knife game is nice with the wheel. Won’t hesitate to push your brains right with the steel at night on the block, getting’ change off the pills. Comes home just to give brains to real like abandoned orphans, loves to raise the steel and finger [expletive] the trigger dumpin’ on [person] back to back slumpin’ you all. [People], I’ve got 44 long just to pump y’all. [People] full of hot hollows. I’m a hard act to follow. Put one in your neck and make it hard to swallow. After you die, I’ll go to your Mom’s house and [expletive] her until tomorrow and make ya’ little brother watch with his face full of sorrow. I’m that boy who didn’t give a [expletive]. I lust to hear the guns bust. (click, click, boom). [People] duck or take a trip in that black bus. Ya’ soul rise like weed in black dust. I ain’t no stranger to danger, friend or foe, acquaintance or stranger, I’ll bang you.”
“You [people] ain’t ready for me, ready for me, ready for me, ready for me, ready for me. You [people] ain’t ready for me.”
“Yo, look in my eyes. You can see death comin’ quick. Look in my palms, you can see what I’m gunnin’ with. I play no games when it comes to this war shit. If death was a jacket, you would see how the floor fits. Crackin’ your chest when I show you how the force spits, makin’ your Mother wish she would have had an abortion. Make no mistakes, I’m the devil made in portions, destroyin’ careers like Paul’s maiden with porches. Now, your broad love me, after five minutes of floor sex. I’ll make her stomp you out with five flavors of GOR-TEX. You think you had Jedi, but haven’t felt the force yet. My slugs make you thinner like smut broads in corsets. So, tell me, what’s the reason you sit down and pee. I’m tryin’ to warn you [people] here that Threat is a beast. We can look at your stats. Mike Game [expletive] deceased. So, don’t look at me and be deceived. I’ll cut your life short like altered states shirts and sleeves. I stand up and dump, never duck and squeeze and I’ll leave you pricks Daffy with the duck disease. Your beak all twisted when you [expletive] with me. I know you [people] want to kill me, but you’re stuck with me. Cause listen, Canon, when beams on you, the team’s on you. Slugs drill in your chest, spillin’ (red) cream on you.” Red is in parentheses. “Leavin’ you wet like drunks” — I can’t read those one word — and then it says, “on you and purposely peed on you.”
I Can Tell You
“I can tell you about blocks of coke, nine young boys in three shifts on the block with dope. Or I can tell you about glocks and smoke, or the SR-15, big shit on the tops of scope. Or I can tell you about the riding — the riding broads. A — a cop chest stuffing packs to a double D bra. Or I can tell you about a city of mobsters and for the price, I can get you high, put up in boxes. Or I can tell you about block wars, Nossberg marble pumps or them semi-automatic SIG Sour blocks fours. That’ll pop you through doors and turn your crib to a full family dead and gone block morgue. And I got more for a full fledged SWAT war. [Expletive] body armor. I’m a rocking pop, mother [expletive], until my spots is gone. I can tell you about hot whips, big rims, little tire, gun ports, fully equipped. T.V.s, D.V.D.s and big Callys to spit. Or I can tell you about these stick-up broads, bad bitches out for the change that’ll get you for it with 380s and they Coach bags, razors and they tracks will leave you somewhere leakin’ bad, depending on Kojack. Or I can tell you about these shot pushers that won’t hesitate to haul off and let a few shots push you. Or I can tell you about life’s high stakes.”
“[people] raisin’ the murder rate.”
More lyrics can be found beginning on page 29 of the appeal.