The state’s highest court today ordered a new trial for an alleged member of a Roxbury street gang convicted of first-degree murder for killing Herman Taylor III, a METCO student with no gang involvement who was shot to death near his Roxbury home in 2006.
The Supreme Judicial Court, in a 5-0 ruling, concluded that the Suffolk Superior Court trial of Lamory Gray, who allegedly belonged to a gang centered in the Bromley Heath housing development, was constitutionally flawed.
Writing for the court, Justice Barbara Lenk said the jurors were told by a prosecution witness about grand jury testimony that incriminated Gray in the murder, but the defense was not allowed by Superior Court Judge Frank M. Gaziano to share grand jury testimony that could be seen as exonerating Gray.
The contradictory grand jury testimony came from the same witness, Christopher Jamison, a reputed member of the H-Block gang that was engaged in a bloody, violent feud with the Bromley Heath gang. Jamison allegedly witnessed the shooting and identified Gray as the shooter to friends but did not testify at Gray’s trial, invoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
“Identification of the shooter was the key issue at trial, and misidentification was the theory of the defense,’’ Lenk wrote. “The impact on the jury of Jamison’s reported statement was likely significant. It deprived the defendant of the ability to impeach a critical witness and, thus, deprived him of a fair trial.”
At the same time, Jamison was unable to pick out Gray’s photo during his grand jury appearance, and Gaziano did not allow jurors to hear that, despite a request from Gray’s defense attorney.
Some 50 shootings were linked to the gang feud by Boston police at the time of Taylor’s killing on July 12, 2006.
The SJC also faulted Gaziano for letting jurors hear and see a rap video in which Gray appeared that a Boston police gang detective testified depicted Gray acknowledging his membership in the Heath street gang.
But the SJC said the officer was an expert on gangs, not rap music, and the officer’s interpretation of Gray’s performance and the meaning of the lyrics should not have been relied upon by Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley’s office as proof of Gray’s gang membership.
“A police officer who has been qualified as a ‘gang expert’ cannot, without more, be deemed an expert qualified to interpret the meaning of rap music lyrics,’’ Lenk wrote. “Balanced against the minimal probative value of the video, its prejudicial effect was overwhelming.’’
Lenk added: “Although the defendant is neither of the two featured rappers, lyrics such as ‘forty-four by my side,’ accompanied by images of stereotypical ‘gangsta thugs,’ some of whose faces are covered by bandanas, could not but have had a prejudicial impact on the jury.’’
The court then threw out Gray’s conviction and granted him a new trial.
Taylor attended Belmont High School, played on the school’s basketball team, and steadfastly avoided the gang environment that surrounded his home, prosecutors and Taylor’s family said at the time of his death and when Gray was convicted of killing the 18-year-old in 2009. When Gray was sentenced in 2009, Taylor’s mother, Sarah Coleman, told him that her son was a young man who “believed in life and never voiced an unkind word or made a malicious act against anyone.”John R. Ellement can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.