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Inside the Criminal Case: Can your lyrics be used against you in court?

James J. Bell , K. Michael Gaerte
August 27, 2014
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Inside CC Bell GaerteI shot a man in Reno
Just to watch him die
–“Folsom Prison Blues,” Johnny Cash



It is common knowledge that what you say can and will be used against you. But what about what you sing or intend to sing? What if what you said was put to a (probably bad) beat in the background? Can lyrics you’ve written, performed or even expressed admiration for, be used against you in your criminal trial? Put in context, could the lyrics from “Folsom Prison Blues” have been used against Johnny Cash if he was ever really charged with shooting someone? In that hypothetical case, could a prosecutor have slapped an exhibit sticker on those lyrics and used those lyrics to make the “Man in Black” hang his head and cry?

Courts have addressed this issue. As a starting point, the decisions that have addressed this issue have done so based solely on evidentiary grounds. Although freedom of speech advocates have pushed the argument that the First Amendment mandates an additional review of a defendant’s artistic expressions, appellate courts addressing this issue have declined the opportunity to do so. See Brief of Amicus Curiae American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, New Jersey v. Skinner, https://www.aclu-nj.org/download_file/view_inline/1175/947/.

While the Rules of Evidence have largely remained the same over the past several years, the availability of information about a defendant’s musical propensities has not. With the proliferation of social media and the increased publication of an individual’s personal preferences, this is an area that will surely see increased attention in courtrooms across the county in the future. While some recent caselaw has provided some clarity on the evidentiary issues, it still seems clear that a firm consensus has not developed in Indiana or nationally.

Earlier this month, the Supreme Court of New Jersey reversed a defendant’s attempted murder conviction and remanded the case for retrial because the trial court had admitted violent rap lyrics the defendant had written prior to the shooting. New Jersey v. Skinner, 2014 N.J. Lexis 803 (N.J. 2014). Skinner was allegedly involved in shooting a rival drug dealer over a money dispute. Id. at 2. When he was arrested, police discovered three notebooks filled with rap lyrics written by Skinner. Id.

Skinner, who may or may not be the next William Shakespeare or Bob Dylan of his era, had penned lyrics such as:

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.

Without going into greater detail, the notebooks contained other material which “included graphic depictions of violence, bloodshed, death, maiming and dismemberment.” Id. at 18.

The state of New Jersey sought to admit the lyrics, not as direct evidence of the crime with which Skinner was charged but rather to prove Skinner’s motive and intent pursuant to Evidentiary Rule 404(b). Id. at 8. Over Skinner’s timely objection, the trial court determined that the lyrics were admissible. Id. at 2. However, on appeal, the New Jersey Supreme Court found that the admission of the lyrics was highly prejudicial and bore little evidentiary value and reversed his conviction. Id. at 5. The court found that Rule 404(b)’s “safeguard against propensity evidence” was designed specifically to prevent such material from unduly prejudicing a jury against a defendant. Id. at 39. Focusing in on the fact that Skinner’s lyrics bore little similarity to the actual shooting at issue, the court determined that admitting the lyrics at Skinner’s trial necessitated a new trial. Id. at 52.

However, when such lyrics reflect details of the crime itself, the analysis can change substantially. In Bryant v. State, the Indiana Court of Appeals addressed this very issue. 802 N.E.2d 486 (Ind. Ct. App. 2004). Arthur Bryant was convicted of, among other things, the murder of his stepmother. Id. at 492. Prior to the murder, Bryant had either authored or plagiarized rap lyrics that contained a line about pulling a body “out (sic) the trunk of my car.” Id. at 498. Police had located Bryant’s stepmother’s body from the trunk of the car Bryant had been driving for several days. Id. Like Skinner, the Bryant court addressed the issue of whether admitting the lyrics violated Evidence Rule 404(b). Ultimately, the appellate court concluded that, because Bryant’s intent to kill was at issue in his trial, he was not unfairly prejudiced when the lyrics were admitted. Id. at 499.

So whether lyrics are admissible in court may depend upon how closely the lyrics mirror the crime alleged. Put another way, if Johnny Cash had ever faced a charge of shooting a man, the admissibility of his lyrics would depend largely on where he shot the man and for what reason. If he had ever shot a man in Reno for the purpose of watching him die, “Folsom Prison Blues” would not only be an American country classic, but also likely an admissible exhibit at trial.•

__________

James J. Bell and K. Michael Gaerte are attorneys with Bingham Greenebaum Doll LLP. They assist lawyers and judges with professional liability and legal ethics issues. They also practice in criminal defense and are regular speakers on criminal defense and ethics topics. They can be reached at jbell@bgdlegal.com or mgaerte@bgdlegal.com. The opinions expressed are those of the authors.

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  1. On a related note, I offered the ICLU my cases against the BLE repeatedly, and sought their amici aid repeatedly as well. Crickets. Usually not even a response. I am guessing they do not do allegations of anti-Christian bias? No matter how glaring? I have posted on other links the amicus brief that did get filed (search this ezine, e.g., Kansas attorney), read the Thomas More Society brief to note what the ACLU ran from like vampires from garlic. An Examiner pledged to advance diversity and inclusion came right out on the record and demanded that I choose Man's law or God's law. I wonder, had I been asked to swear off Allah ... what result then, ICLU? Had I been found of bad character and fitness for advocating sexual deviance, what result then ICLU? Had I been lifetime banned for posting left of center statements denigrating the US Constitution, what result ICLU? Hey, we all know don't we? Rather Biased.

  2. It was mentioned in the article that there have been numerous CLE events to train attorneys on e-filing. I would like someone to provide a list of those events, because I have not seen any such events in east central Indiana, and since Hamilton County is one of the counties where e-filing is mandatory, one would expect some instruction in this area. Come on, people, give some instruction, not just applause!

  3. This law is troubling in two respects: First, why wasn't the law reviewed "with the intention of getting all the facts surrounding the legislation and its actual impact on the marketplace" BEFORE it was passed and signed? Seems a bit backwards to me (even acknowledging that this is the Indiana state legislature we're talking about. Second, what is it with the laws in this state that seem to create artificial monopolies in various industries? Besides this one, the other law that comes to mind is the legislation that governed the granting of licenses to firms that wanted to set up craft distilleries. The licensing was limited to only those entities that were already in the craft beer brewing business. Republicans in this state talk a big game when it comes to being "business friendly". They're friendly alright . . . to certain businesses.

  4. Gretchen, Asia, Roberto, Tonia, Shannon, Cheri, Nicholas, Sondra, Carey, Laura ... my heart breaks for you, reaching out in a forum in which you are ignored by a professional suffering through both compassion fatigue and the love of filthy lucre. Most if not all of you seek a warm blooded Hoosier attorney unafraid to take on the government and plead that government officials have acted unconstitutionally to try to save a family and/or rescue children in need and/or press individual rights against the Leviathan state. I know an attorney from Kansas who has taken such cases across the country, arguing before half of the federal courts of appeal and presenting cases to the US S.Ct. numerous times seeking cert. Unfortunately, due to his zeal for the constitutional rights of peasants and willingness to confront powerful government bureaucrats seemingly violating the same ... he was denied character and fitness certification to join the Indiana bar, even after he was cleared to sit for, and passed, both the bar exam and ethics exam. And was even admitted to the Indiana federal bar! NOW KNOW THIS .... you will face headwinds and difficulties in locating a zealously motivated Hoosier attorney to face off against powerful government agents who violate the constitution, for those who do so tend to end up as marginalized as Paul Odgen, who was driven from the profession. So beware, many are mere expensive lapdogs, the kind of breed who will gladly take a large retainer, but then fail to press against the status quo and powers that be when told to heel to. It is a common belief among some in Indiana that those attorneys who truly fight the power and rigorously confront corruption often end up, actually or metaphorically, in real life or at least as to their careers, as dead as the late, great Gary Welch. All of that said, I wish you the very best in finding a Hoosier attorney with a fighting spirit to press your rights as far as you can, for you do have rights against government actors, no matter what said actors may tell you otherwise. Attorneys outside the elitist camp are often better fighters that those owing the powers that be for their salaries, corner offices and end of year bonuses. So do not be afraid to retain a green horn or unconnected lawyer, many of them are fine men and woman who are yet untainted by the "unique" Hoosier system.

  5. I am not the John below. He is a journalist and talk show host who knows me through my years working in Kansas government. I did no ask John to post the note below ...

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