STATE v. SKINNER No. A-2201-08T2.
STATE OF NEW JERSEY, Plaintiff-Respondent, v. VONTE L. SKINNER, Defendant-Appellant.
Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division.
Decided August 31, 2012.
Robert D. Bernardi, Burlington County Prosecutor, attorney for respondent ( Jennifer Stonerod, Assistant Prosecutor, of counsel and on the brief).
Before Judges Grall, Alvarez and Skillman.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION
The first jury to hear this case was unable to reach a verdict. A second jury found defendant Vonte L. Skinner guilty of attempted murder,
The most significant of the several issues defendant raises on this appeal concerns the reading of his rap lyrics to the jurors. Because of the length of the reading, the redacted lyrics read to the jury are set forth in full in the appendix to this opinion. The lyrics were read to establish defendant's motive and intent — material issues that were not "genuinely in dispute."
On the night of November 8, 2005, the victim, Lamont Peterson, was shot multiple times at close range with a 9-millimeter gun that was never recovered. The shots pierced Peterson's abdomen, chest, back and the side of his head. As a consequence, Peterson is paralyzed from the waist down. Several cell phones were recovered near the spot on the street where Peterson was found, and the police later linked one phone to defendant. Nine days after the shooting, defendant was arrested and gave a statement to the police which was admitted at trial. Defendant's rap lyrics were found in the back seat of the car he was driving when arrested — his girlfriend's Malibu.
Prior to the shooting, Peterson sold drugs provided by Brandon C. Rothwell. Defendant was the newest member of Rothwell's three-man team. According to Peterson, defendant also sold drugs but had an additional role — serving as the team's muscle to address "problems" with buyers and other drug dealers. Apart from Peterson's testimony identifying defendant as the muscle, there was no evidence of anything defendant had done in that role. In fact, Peterson testified that he had never asked defendant for help because he took care of his own problems. According to Peterson, all members of the team had 9-millimeter guns.
Peterson's share of the profits diminished after defendant joined Rothwell's team. To address his shortfall, Peterson kept some of the money he obtained from buyers rather than giving it to Rothwell as expected. Rothwell and Peterson had a falling out, and Rothwell directed Peterson to return a Tech-9 that he had been given as a member of the team. Peterson still had the Tech-9 on the night he was shot. It and fourteen bags containing drugs were found in the trunk of his car at the scene of the crime. Peterson also had drugs in his pocket.
There was no dispute that defendant was present when Peterson was shot. He admitted that he was there in the statement he gave to the police after learning they had found his phone, and he said he met Peterson to buy drugs from him. Additionally, phone and "Nextel" records confirmed that the men spoke several times that day, the last contact being moments before the shooting. Consistent with defendant's statement explaining his presence, Peterson testified that he had agreed to meet defendant to sell him drugs.
When Peterson arrived at the designated place, he saw Rothwell standing near defendant and was surprised by that. Peterson got out of his car and left it running. By Peterson's account at trial, as he walked toward defendant, defendant approached and fired. Peterson recalls seeing defendant and the gun but nothing else about the incident.
According to a post-arrest statement defendant gave the police, he went to meet Peterson to buy drugs alone and drove his girlfriend's Malibu to get there. Just as Peterson was about to give him the "coke," a "shot [went] off, boom." When he heard the shot, defendant ran one way and Peterson ran another. He did not see Peterson get shot or who was doing the shooting.
The officer responding to the scene found Peterson lying on the street, partially under a parked car. Peterson told him he did not know who shot him, but en route to the hospital he told another officer that defendant was the shooter. Peterson later reverted to his original account and said he did not know who shot him, but after speaking to his mother, he decided to tell the "truth" and consequently abandoned his plan to avoid being a snitch by exacting revenge himself.
Alexandria Ross, Peterson's cousin and the mother of Rothwell's child, testified for the defense at this trial. Contradicting her prior testimony and statements, she said Peterson told her defendant did not shoot him and that he thought another man, Joseph Ward, also known as Neri, had. Neri and Peterson had been arguing for a few weeks when Peterson was shot — ever since Neri robbed one of Peterson's relatives and others retaliated by shooting at Neri's car. Neri was also in the area on the night Peterson was shot.
After the defense rested, the State called a rebuttal witness, a detective who had interviewed Ross after the shooting. He testified that she had told him that she and other members of her family were afraid of defendant and thought she was in danger because defendant knew where she lived and because she knew what he was capable of.
Although Rothwell was charged in the indictment along with defendant, he was not prosecuted. During the State's opening, the prosecutor explained that charges against Rothwell had been dismissed because Peterson had reservations and decided that he would not testify against Rothwell. Neither defendant nor Rothwell testified.
On appeal defendant raises these issues:
As noted at the outset of this opinion, the most significant issues concern the admission of defendant's rap lyrics that were found in the car he was driving at the time of his arrest. Prior to defendant's first trial the judge ruled, over defendant's objections, that the State could introduce the selections with specified redactions. Defendant wrote the lyrics over a period of several years. The State pointed to one lyric written after September 2005, but conceded that others were written as many as three to four years prior to this crime. The jury was not given any information about when the lyrics were written.
At this trial, the State referenced the rap lyrics in its opening and introduced them in its case in chief to establish defendant's motive and intent, not in response to an attack on the State's evidence. Defendant's brother, a part-time music producer, testified for the defense. He read the jury a lyric of tribute defendant had written about a friend killed in an accident and other lyrics defendant had written about his life. Defendant's brother also read rap lyrics composed by successful rap artists to illustrate the graphic nature and legitimacy of the genre.
The State's reading from defendant's lyrics was extensive. The trial transcript of the reading, which was not interrupted at any point, runs for thirteen pages of twenty-five lines each. The lyrics are generally written in a first person narrative, with several identifying the narrator as "Threat." Defendant has the moniker "Threat" tattooed on his arm, and one lyric mentions defendant's tattoo as follows: "In block wars I'm a vet, In the hood I'm a threat. It's written on my arm and signed in blood on my Tech." Another lyric states "Threat's" date of birth, which matches defendant's birth date.
The lyrics as redacted and read to the jury recount "Threat's" violent acts — for example, shootings, knifings and rapes committed while "Threat" is forcing members of the woman's family to watch. The lyrics describe the acts with disturbing metaphors, and they include profanity, expletives and odious racial epithets. For example, one metaphor depicts the grief "Threat" would cause a mother by shooting her child as follows:
Other selections describe the physical damage "Threat" causes when he shoots someone in the head, neck or abdomen.
Overall, the lengthy reading amounted to a prolonged and appalling assault on common sensibilities. The first eleven-and-one-half lines of the transcribed reading, approximately 3.5% of the total, give some idea of the overall effect. Generally, the transcribed text has not been altered, but the words "person" and "people" are substituted for the singular and plural form of a racial epithet.
Although writing about evil things and expressing evil thoughts is not a bad act, this court and the Supreme Court have recognized that when a defendant's writing reflects his bad acts or a propensity to act badly,
Considering the content of these lyrics, even the small segment fully set forth above, there is no question that
The relevant law is clear. Because evidence of defendant's bad conduct on another occasion "has a `unique tendency' to prejudice a jury against the defendant, it must be admitted cautiously."
The rule prohibits admission of such evidence to "prove the disposition of a person in order to show that such person acted in conformity" with that disposition, but it permits use of such evidence for other limited purposes — including to establish motive or intent when "relevant to a material issue in dispute."
With respect to the first prong, prior to
In this case, there was evidence of defendant's motive. Peterson's testimony provided it. He testified the defendant served as Rothwell's muscle when there were problems with Rothwell's drug business, and Peterson testified that he had been skimming profits, argued with Rothwell and refused to give Rothwell his Tech 9 as Rothwell demanded. That motive was the centerpiece of the State's case. In the State's opening statement to the jury, the prosecutor explained: Defendant's "motive was to enforce the street laws against Lamont Peterson, and his intent was to kill him." Thus, this was not a case in which circumstantial evidence of defendant's writings were critical to show his motive.
Nor was such evidence important to show that defendant had the intent to kill Peterson, which the State was required to establish to prove attempted murder. This brutal shooting bespoke intent to kill. The jurors did not need rap lyrics, capable of suggesting that conviction would be proper for no reason other than his depravity, to understand that whoever fired seven bullets into Peterson head, neck and abdomen meant to cause his death. There was no evidence that raised any question as to the shooter's intent.
The absence of defense evidence raising a question as to the shooter's intent distinguishes this case from
Similarly, Peterson's testimony providing evidence of defendant's motive distinguishes this case from
To the extent the lyrics depicting defendant as an enforcer and hit-man had any relevance beyond demonstrating his criminal propensity and depravity, it was to add weight to Peterson's testimony that defendant played that role for Rothwell. With respect to defendant's motive to kill Peterson, the lyrics added nothing. The only logical relevance was to give additional weight to Peterson's testimony about defendant's motive. In that respect, the lyrics were much like the testimony of the witness in
The lyrics could not be used to identify defendant based on the fact that he had committed similar crimes with similar guns. While his lyrics describe similar crimes against unknown persons and some lines mention Tech-9s, a gun of the same millimeter used to shoot Peterson, other than Peterson's unsubstantiated assertion the defendant acted as Rothwell's enforcer, there was no evidence that defendant did any of the acts he wrote about in his lyrics or had any knowledge of the subject matter of his work beyond what might be seen in a violent movie. For that reason, the third prong of the
To illustrate the risk of extreme prejudice, we refer to a portion of the lyric quoted in full in section A above: "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." This lyric describes a shooting resembling Peterson's in that it involved multiple gun shots delivered to the head, "the mask," and chest, "the ribs," and the shooting was motivated by the victim's failure to listen. The jurors were left to speculate that defendant had done such things even though there was no evidence to suggest that his writing was anything other than fiction. Moreover, since the gun was never found, we fail to see how the references to 9-millimeter guns in the lyrics had any capacity to show that he was the person who used a 9-millimeter gun to shoot Peterson.
We have reviewed all of the lyrics set forth in the appendix in full and found none that do not suffer from the same defects that lead us to conclude that the lyrics we have discussed should have been excluded under the first and third prongs. Accordingly, we conclude that the judge erred in allowing the reading. As
While our conclusion that these lyrics were erroneously admitted makes further discussion unnecessary, it is worth noting the readings of a defendant's fictional writing pose special problems that must be addressed before the lyrics are deemed relevant to prove a material issue. The relevance of writing like this is difficult to discern because it uses words differently than in common parlance. To illustrate, we need only quote a portion of one lyric: "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."
Without a competent explanation by a person with some expertise in the area, the judge and jury are left to speculate about this lyric's meaning.
We recognize that decisions of courts in other jurisdictions, upon which our dissenting colleague relies, have upheld the use of rap lyrics in criminal trials. We do not find them persuasive or helpful in resolving this case. In
The nature of
There are cases in which courts have found, based on the content of the lyric or the facts of the case, that it was error to admit lyrics authored by the defendant.
One court has rejected "the proposition that an author's character can be determined by the type of book he writes."
Finally, we must consider whether the erroneous admission of this evidence over defendant's objection was harmless or clearly capable of producing an unjust result.
Defendant raises additional issues.
In the interest of avoiding repetition of similar arguments in the future, we briefly address defendant's objection to the State's closing. The prosecutor's expression of his personal weariness with the subculture's code of silence and his argument likening Ross's testimony to a call for anarchy were, at best, improper. While there was no objection, a prosecutor has a duty to see that justice is done and should not require an objection to keep a closing argument within the broad boundaries of permissible advocacy related to the evidence produced at trial.
Reversed and remanded for a new trial.
Appendix — Lyrics Read to the Jurors
Q. Thank you. If you could begin.
A. At the top of the page is number 5 on the left, the words, "No Hook," at the top and page — page 59 on the right-hand side.
"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 next page has Page 60, the number 60 circled on the top left corner and then starts with:
"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]."
The next page is number 78 at the top left corner:
"I'm from the city where [people] don't sleep. Wartime all my [person] speak with heat. I love bringin' heat and to beef melt ya' Jeep. Two to your helmet and four slugs drillin' your cheek to blow your face off and leave your brain caved in the street — the seat. I play with fire like pyros and gasoline, so, come test one. I hope your brain got a rhino vest on. Death is your final step, Dawg, ain't nothin' sweet here, everywhere I go, I got my heat. There, if there's a problem, then pop-off. I got my fleet here. I'm that kickin' your door [person] spit in the four [person], rock your cap and watch you flip to the floor, [person], see if your gravity can defeat the law [person]. With two 9's — with two 9's, I am a hated [expletive] the law [person]. I am home now with Kays and Mac's, Ruger's and Techs. I'm, the dude to shoot at ya' neck, shatter your life like a bottle of Becks. One and only to slice a dude like bologna, you don't know me. I'll watch you pricks die slowly, lay you stiff like a trophy. Don't approach me; I hurt dudes who play me closely. I keep to 9's smoking, bend a [person] and leave his ass open."
The next page is number 81 on the right-hand side and it say, "Loose Rap," at the top:
"For [people] that's fees, I keep cotch and calicos, rip your solar plex right where your salad bowl. Knock a few parts off and put your heart in a salad bowl, talk loose, you lose your valuables: your wife and your son and the dog that your momma holds. This life is cold when you break survival codes, now your family gotta witness what the rifle holds. Your mom's died in the bed readin' Bible scrolls. Your pop's heart stopped, then watched his ex wife — who — his wife explode.
The words, "Pick Apart" are at the bottom and circled.
The next page is page 84. It begins:
"A thug [person] is a dude that's willing to pop, can't find you in a manhunt. He's killin' your pops. Won't let the law touch him. He's stealin' a cop. Before he drops, he pulls the shots. He's peelin' his top. He only aims for the head and throat to dead your ghost. Hit you with lead close and watch your threads explode and leaves you with a red note and thoughts exposed."
The next page is page 88 on the top left corner and it starts: "Streets of Rage," underlined, up top:
"I'm the [person] to drive-by and tear your block up, leave you, your homey and neighbors shot up, chest, shots will have you spittin' blood clots up. Go ahead and play hard. I'll have you in front of heaven prayin' to God, body parts displaying the scars, puncture wounds and bones blown apart, showin' your heart full of black marks, thinkin' you already been through hell, well, here's the best part. You tried to lay me down with you and your dogs until the guns barked. Your last sight you saw was the gun spark, nothin' but pure dark, like Bacardi. Dead drunk in the bar, face lent over the wheel of your car, brains in your lap, tryin' to comprehend what the [expletive] just tore you apart, made your brains pop out your skull. So, rest like your bitch just sucked you off. You tried to get me, but my guns talked first. Got you in a hearse, face up in a church, with a clay-made face and an R.I.P. shirt. Thought I was a [expletive] until my guns lifted your skirt. Now, who's the real bitch? My semi-autos keep long clips. Teach gymnastics on how to lift and flip your ribs and your house and rip your kids, catch your Moms on the late night and split her wig. The streets of rage, you end up in the cage or grave. Block war for the raw where no lives are safe; the guns go off and many [people] die for cake."
The next page is page 89 on the right-hand side and it's also entitled — titled up top, "Streets of Rage" and underlined.
"[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."
The next page is numbered 105 at the right — top right-hand corner. The title "Murda,"-U-R-D-A, is underlined at the top.
"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."
At the bottom, it says, "times two" on the left side of the page and then:
"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."
The next page is number 111 at the top right-hand corner:
"You dudes is lame, playin' tough by callin' my name. You think it's a game until I come and speak with the flame and take ya' blood. Let my slugs shake in your blood. I'm breakin' you, [person]. I got nothin' but gangster and thugs to touch you all. How you want it? Double lot or sawed? I'm takin' you off, see? You [person] buckle the — the wall. Squad One rushin' you off, touchin' you soft. Electric shock jumpin' your heart silence assassins, semi-auto spit [person]. I doubled the action, Threat. Spit [person], I double your back. Spit, blacken your vision. I stay cuttin', packin' — packin' the scissors, takin' your fame, the Mac, forsaken your name. Two G's, the reaper done came, I rapen your dame. Boil the water, drop the powder. I'm bakin' the cane. For 2 G's I pop the yo, I'm shakin' your frame. When I clap them thin's, when it be the Mac or the Gauge, I'll remove your waves and put them on your Dame so she can see you think. You [people] can't [expletive] with Threat, with my hands on a Tech. You [people] gone [expletive] with death."
The next page is number 117 at the top right-hand corner:
"You pricks goin' to listen the Threat tonight. Cause you feel when I pump this P-89 into your head like lice. Slugs will rush ya' life twice, like handlin' dice. Eighty slugs pass ya' D, like Montana and Rice, that's five hammers, 16 shots to damage your life, leave you faggots all bloody like Passion of Christ. When I blast the pipe, I crack the night. Run in your cribs like Feds. So, get them answers right. Where's the cash and stash of white? I got ya' wife tied to the bed and at her throat is a knife. I came for the change, coke, water and ice. Don't make me hit you with stun gun or go in the other room, lace ya' Mom with these dumb-dumbs. Slump your whole family and make you watch they [expletive] brains run like Mo' Green gettin' chased with guns. I'm tired of crumbs. I'm tryin' to eat steak and eggs with a side of yum on the block with a bottle. Gettin' high with a bum, my young dudes with pies in the slums."
Q. Now, would you — can you continue on to S-52, which begins with "Free Style?"
A. Yes, sir. At the top, left-hand corner is the number eight, circled and the words "Free Style" at the top of the page underlined.
"You [people] really don't want to put your life on the line. Beef with Threat, you get the knife or the 9. All you see is bright lights flash like your life's on the line. But my name ain't Pavarotti — Pavarotzi. I'll box you — I'll box you in, but I'm not Rocky. I stand strong, but I'm not cocky. When I come for you, you'll not stop me and put you on the wall like it's block hockey; Leave you smokin' like a hot pot. 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. It's quiet time for you [expletive] lames speakin' and I stay dumpin' while you [expletive] lames stay reach — reachin'. With guns big enough to spray regions and lay you and your squad on the same cement. You [people] [expletive] with a deranged demon that will change your breathin' and leave your body with a strange feelin' from holes the same size arranged ceilin'. I move swift like a brave villain who falls back after eight killin's. My clumsy fin'er keeps the eight spillin' to empty out all your face — all your face fillin'. To push you pricks is such a great feelin', like sendin' you a tape of me [expletive] your wife in front of your eight children, [expletive]."
Next page, number 29, top right-hand corner, the word, "Leakin'" up top, underlined.
"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."
The next page is number 45 at the top right-hand corner:
"You may see me in a black Caddy on black rims fitted low and black muzzle on a Mac-10. Clip full of them black rhinos in that gold skin. Rubber grip held tight with some black gloves, blood in my eyes. Intent is to murder and crack thugs I keep slugs like mat — menage a trois, they lack love. So, wet you do dirt [people] and turn you back to mud. When I crash your mug, like the Shaq attack, the Mac is back. Slugs will smack your cap. When I am gunnin' you cats, bullets like Westbrook, they'll run in your back. An if your son — and if your son in your cap, he can get one in his traps. I'll send you B.M. an early present. Your son in a sack, with a hole in his neck, the same size of my pecs. In block wars I am a vet. In the hood, I am a threat. It's written on my arm and signed in blood on my Tech. I'm in love with you, death. Just call me the soul searcher when huntin' your breath."
The next page number is 47 at the top right-hand corner:
"I am the hit man sent in to smash you lames, thrash you frame and break it down like crashin' planes. Now, you the Trade Center with a bashed in brain, when I clap them thin's, whether Mac or the Gauge."
The next page is number 85 on the right-hand corner and the words, "I Can Tell You," underlined and "Free Style" underlined:
"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." And at the bottom is: "[people] raisin' the murder rate."
The next page is number 105 at the top right-hand corner:
"My life is like a tumor in the lungs of cancer patients. It can get cut short. [Expletive] the new rules of engagement. This street shit is real, like shoes hittin' the pavement. That's why my trigger finger and slugs leave [people] caved in. I never discriminate between thugs, killers and brave men. Anyone can get it. When my slugs exit the chamber, I keep you [people] fallin' when I mark my destination. I've been chasin' death for years. He keep escaping. So, I'm a keep on livin', move with hard hitters. Or you can get cut the [expletive] up, no pull-up, push-up or dippin'. But I'm back to the block now with bigger guns, extended clips and then black towels. You want a beef with Threat Dawg? I never back down. We can box in the street or pull the Macs out, get your jaw broke or get your head rocked out. So, put you face mask on and your hard hat, cause trust me, Dawg, I ain't aimin' where your heart at. I'm tryin' to hit you where senses, your thoughts at. Clear your mind of speculation you had of real threat. I'll send your life on vacation with a steel Tech or and all black Mac-40, make you feel that."
And that's the end of it, sir.
ALVAREZ, J.A.D., dissenting.
I respectfully dissent from the conclusion reached by my colleagues with regard to the admissibility of the rap lyrics in this case and would, for the reasons that follow, affirm defendant's conviction for first-degree attempted murder,
The facts, summarized from the trial testimony, bear repeating. The victim, Lamont Peterson, regularly dealt drugs on behalf of Brandon Rothwell when in September 2005 defendant joined the "team." As Peterson described it, although his own role was strictly sales, defendant sold drugs and acted as "muscle," resolving conflicts between Rothwell and others. Once defendant became involved, Peterson's relationship with Rothwell began to deteriorate. In turn, Peterson began to withhold some of the proceeds from profits owed to Rothwell and refused to return a Tech-9 machine gun that Rothwell had given him.
On the day of the shooting, November 8, 2005, defendant repeatedly called Peterson attempting to arrange to meet so that the two men could "talk and smoke, drink." Peterson declined until defendant said a drug deal had been arranged in Willingboro at around 10:00 p.m. Defendant phoned Peterson several times, checking on his location, as the hour approached. During the last phone call, Peterson told defendant that he was just "pulling up."
When Peterson arrived, he saw defendant standing in the bushes with Rothwell, and saw defendant pull a gun and point it at him. Although Peterson recalled seeing Rothwell standing to the side, he did not remember any other details. He was later found lying underneath a car, suffering from multiple gunshot wounds.
At the hospital, Peterson refused to name the shooter because, he explained at trial, he wanted revenge and the "code of the street" required him not to "snitch." After speaking with his mother, however, who was encouraged by police to convince her son to cooperate, he eventually identified defendant. He also told police that Rothwell had been present and was most likely involved because he was owed money and wanted his weapon returned.
While on the stand, Peterson acknowledged making conflicting statements regarding Rothwell's involvement. On cross-examination, he also admitted drinking hard liquor and consuming PCP that evening. Peterson insisted, however, that he had always named defendant as the shooter and never told anyone, including his cousin and Rothwell's girlfriend, Alexandria Ross, that he doubted that defendant was the shooter. Peterson is paralyzed from the waist down and confined to a wheelchair due to his injuries.
Defendant established that within the same time frame, Peterson had been in an altercation with another drug dealer in the area, Joseph Ward, because Ward had robbed Peterson's cousin, Christopher Ross. After that incident, Ward's car was shot and Ward "had a beef" with Peterson. When asked, Peterson said, "if you have a beef with somebody and somebody's car gets shot up[,]" then the "code of the streets" requires that you "[g]et back at them." Nonetheless, he reiterated that it was defendant who shot him, not Ward. Defendant elicited testimony from the investigating officer that Ward and his cohorts were in the vicinity when the shooting occurred.
Lieutenant Joseph Dey of the Willingboro Police Department also testified at trial. He spoke to Peterson inside the ambulance at the scene, and said Peterson seemed afraid and "very nervous." When asked who shot him, Peterson responded, "Devonte,"
Burlington County Detective Michael Wiltsey subsequently searched the Malibu belonging to defendant's girlfriend, Victoria Carter, and recovered, among other things, three notebooks from the rear seat and a
Defendant's brother, Amar Dean, a music producer, said that defendant composed rap lyrics under the name "Real Threat," and he identified the handwriting in the notebooks as belonging to defendant. Dean explained that hardcore rap music, such as that authored by defendant, had "nothing nice about it[,]" and during his testimony he read to the jury similar violent and graphic rap lyrics from artists such as 50 Cent, Snoop Dogg, Trick Daddy, and Dion.
Prior to the first trial, the court conducted an
After applying the four-part
Having determined that the rap lyrics were material and admissible, the trial judge then redacted them. He admitted descriptions of defendant's use of firearms to inflict injury and shootings in a fashion similar to the wounds inflicted on this victim, in the head and neck. The judge also admitted lyrics in which defendant referred to himself as "Threat."
In closing, defense counsel reminded jurors that songs from professional rap artists were a "legitimate part of the culture.... People are listening to it. Many, many people are writing it and producing it. It has nothing to do with the shooting in this case." Defense counsel added the following:
On appeal, defendant's principal contention is that the admission of the rap lyrics constituted reversible error because they included multiple references to killing, were replete with offensive racial epithets and violent imagery, as well as graphic language. In other words, that their probative value was outweighed by the risk of undue prejudice.
It is undisputed that
It is my view that the trial judge correctly analyzed the question of admissibility pursuant to the four-part test set forth in
First, the judge found the rap lyrics were relevant to a material issue, in other words, that they tended "to prove or disprove any fact of consequence to the determination of the action."
Under the second
That some lyrics were written years prior to the shooting did not mandate exclusion. Unlike other examples of bad acts, music lyrics are part of a continuing body of work produced by the composer. And they were important enough to defendant that he kept the older verses together with more recent ones.
That some of the lyrics were older is not itself fatal. For example, evidence of unrelated crimes committed two-and-one-half years prior to the event for which a defendant is indicted has been found to satisfy the temporal requirement of the second prong.
The third prong requires that the evidence be clear and convincing.
The fourth prong of the
The key alternative scenario defendant advanced at trial was that the shooting was actually committed by another drug dealer, Ward, with whom defendant had an ongoing quarrel. Defendant's theory was that Peterson knew Ward shot him but for reasons best known to him, was deliberately identifying defendant, the wrong man, and not identifying Ward as the shooter.
The lyrics do indeed, as the majority states, give additional weight to Peterson's testimony about defendant's motive. But they do more than that — they also explain why defendant, theoretically part of Rothwell's sales team and a cohort of the victim, would have targeted him. Peterson's testimony makes sense only if defendant was acting as Rothwell's enforcer, and exacting revenge against a member of Rothwell's team who had stepped out of line. Thus the probative value of the lyrics was so great as to outweigh the potential for prejudice.
I concur with the majority that the redaction of the material was insufficient — for example, the jury heard verses, entirely immaterial to the issues in the case, in which defendant described violent sexual conduct. But the impact of such irrelevant material is minimal, and its admission harmless error, when compared to defendant's highly relevant and admissible graphic descriptions of shootings.
The admission of this otherwise prejudicial irrelevant material must also be viewed in the context of this trial, where the victim admitted he was an armed drug dealer who worked side-by-side with his assailant on behalf of Rothwell. Given the proofs, the jury could not have perceived anyone involved as persons of good character. This factor weighs heavily towards the conclusion that the admission was indeed harmless error.
Furthermore, defendant's brother's reading of equally violent and graphic rap lyrics available commercially for public consumption minimized any potential for prejudice. For all these reasons, the probative value was not outweighed by prejudice, and the admission of the irrelevant material was harmless error.
Moreover, the trial judge's analysis of 404(b) was guided by
The Court also held that the lyrics were "sufficiently similar in nature to the crimes for which defendant was charged" thereby meeting the second prong.
The third prong of the
The lyrics were important to the State's theory of the case, establishing defendant's motive for the killing.
In light of
Many federal and state courts have reached the same conclusion as did the trial judge, admitting violent and graphic rap lyrics where relevant to a material issue. In
The Arkansas Supreme Court found that the prejudicial effect of the lyrics did not outweigh their probative value because they established the defendant's intent to commit aggravated robbery.
In a Delaware case, the defendant's rap lyrics were admitted despite including a statement that he wanted to put his enemies' heads on a shelf.
A relatively recent law journal article exhaustively analyzes the admissibility of rap lyrics throughout the country, stating that "[o]verwhelmingly, courts admit defendant-composed rap music lyrical evidence." Andrea L. Dennis,
Turning now to the adequacy of the judge's charge, certainly, "once the prosecution has demonstrated the necessity of the other-crime evidence to prove a genuine fact in issue and the court has carefully balanced the probative value of the evidence against the possible undue prejudice it may create, the court must instruct the jury on the limited use of the evidence."
He included the following in his closing charge:
Accordingly, I believe that the trial court correctly assessed the
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