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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. Looks like 2017 will be another notable year for these cases. I have a Grandson involved in a CHINS case that should never have been. He and the whole family are being held hostage by CPS and the 'current mood' of the CPS caseworker. If the parents disagree with a decision, they are penalized. I, along with other were posting on Jasper County Online News, but all were quickly warned to remove posts. I totally understand that some children need these services, but in this case, it was mistakes, covered by coorcement of father to sign papers, lies and cover-ups. The most astonishing thing was within 2 weeks of this child being placed with CPS, a private adoption agency was asking questions regarding child's family in the area. I believe a photo that was taken by CPS manager at the very onset during the CHINS co-ocerment and the intent was to make money. I have even been warned not to post or speak to anyone regarding this case. Parents have completed all requirements, met foster parents, get visitation 2 days a week, and still the next court date is all the way out till May 1, which gives them(CPS) plenty of to time make further demands (which I expect) No trust of these 'seasoned' case managers, as I have already learned too much about their dirty little tricks. If they discover that I have posted here, I expect they will not be happy and penalized parents again. Still a Hostage.

  2. They say it was a court error, however they fail to mention A.R. was on the run from the law and was hiding. Thus why she didn't receive anything from her public defender. Step mom is filing again for adoption of the two boys she has raised. A.R. is a criminal with a serious heroin addiction. She filed this appeal MORE than 30 days after the final decision was made from prison. Report all the facts not just some.

  3. Hysteria? Really Ben? Tell the young lady reported on in the link below that worrying about the sexualizing of our children is mere hysteria. Such thinking is common in the Royal Order of Jesters and other running sex vacays in Thailand or Brazil ... like Indy's Jared Fogle. Those tempted to call such concerns mere histronics need to think on this: http://www.msn.com/en-us/news/us/a-12-year-old-girl-live-streamed-her-suicide-it-took-two-weeks-for-facebook-to-take-the-video-down/ar-AAlT8ka?li=AA4ZnC&ocid=spartanntp

  4. This is happening so much. Even in 2016.2017. I hope the father sue for civil rights violation. I hope he sue as more are doing and even without a lawyer as pro-se, he got a good one here. God bless him.

  5. I whole-heartedly agree with Doug Church's comment, above. Indiana lawyers were especially fortunate to benefit from Tom Pyrz' leadership and foresight at a time when there has been unprecedented change in the legal profession. Consider how dramatically computer technology and its role in the practice of law have changed over the last 25 years. The impact of the great recession of 2008 dramatically changed the composition and structure of law firms across the country. Economic pressures altered what had long been a routine, robust annual recruitment process for law students and recent law school graduates. That has, in turn, impacted law school enrollment across the country, placing upward pressure on law school tuition. The internet continues to drive significant changes in the provision of legal services in both public and private sectors. The ISBA has worked to make quality legal representation accessible and affordable for all who need it and to raise general public understanding of Indiana laws and procedures. How difficult it would have been to tackle each of these issues without Tom's leadership. Tom has set the tone for positive change at the ISBA to meet the evolving practice needs of lawyers of all backgrounds and ages. He has led the organization with vision, patience, flexibility, commitment, thoughtfulness & even humor. He will, indeed, be a tough act to follow. Thank you, Tom, for all you've done and all the energy you've invested in making the ISBA an excellent, progressive, highly responsive, all-inclusive, respectful & respected professional association during his tenure there.

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