Facebook Posts Loom Large in Trial for Slain Basketball Star's Brother
Taylonn Murphy leads a candlelight vigil in West Harlem to commemorate his daughter, Tayshana Murphy, and bring together the community.
Taylonn Murphy sat in Room 1530 of the Manhattan Criminal Court on Monday, watching opening arguments in the case against his son, Taylonn Murphy Jr., who stands accused of murder and conspiracy charges as part of the largest gang bust in New York City history.
Taylonn Jr. is one of many suspects from the Manhattanville and Grant houses — public projects in West Harlem that have a longstanding history of violent rivalry — swept up in a massive dragnet following a four-year criminal investigation by the Manhattan district attorney. In total, 103 people were indicted for activity associated with three gangs — Money Avenue, Make It Happen Boys, and 3Staccs. The D.A. brought two murder charges, nineteen non-fatal shootings, and possession of firearms in a 145-count indictment.
Of those 103, the Manhattan D.A.’s office says 94 have pleaded guilty rather than stand trial. Some of the rest were convicted, one defendant was acquitted at trial, and another case was dismissed. Only four cases are pending — one apiece for Money Avenue and Make It Happen Boys, and two for 3Staccs.
Taylonn Jr.’s case is one of those four. He’s charged with being part of a 3Staccs crew involved in the killing of Walter Sumter, who lived in the Manhattanville Houses, in December 2011. For the elder Murphy, the case is extraordinarily difficult: His daughter, Tayshana, was fatally gunned down in the hallway of the Grant Houses in September 2011. She was eighteen, a rising basketball star named one of the top point guards in the country by ESPN’s HoopGurlz. Two young men from the neighboring Manhattanville Houses were later sentenced to 25 years to life in prison for her murder. Now Tayshana’s brother could end up in prison.
Social media will be a big part of the prosecution’s case against Taylonn Murphy Jr. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance and the NYPD have increasingly built cases against gangs by focusing on Facebook. The indictment against the 103 alleged gang members was peppered with comments on the site from the suspects, including posts written by Taylonn Jr. Prosecutors looked at over a million social-media pages in the case. A Facebook representative will be flown in for the trial.
Taylonn Murphy Jr. was initially charged with assault and criminal possession of a weapon. The murder charges didn't come until seven months after the takedown. The assistant district attorneys told jurors on Monday that witnesses — who they are calling “cooperators” — will testify in the coming weeks and place the younger Murphy at the murder scene. The cooperators stand to “receive a benefit of a reduced sentence,” says one of the A.D.A.s.
“Detectives sifted through thousands of hours of phone calls, hours of surveillance video, and pages of Facebook posts,” Assistant District Attorney Jon Viega said in his opening arguments. He faced the jury of twelve men and women, with five alternates, and outlined how the only thing the gang members like more than committing violent acts against rivals “is bragging about it on Facebook.”
Defense attorney Lewis Gladston followed the prosecution with his statement. He told jurors that the three cooperators have been known to lie.
“Credibility is an issue,” Gladston said — for the cooperators, “it’s a ‘get out of jail free card.’ The informants were facing a life sentence before cooperating. My client’s DNA wasn’t found on any evidence. There is not one single video of my client hurting anybody. They recovered zero evidence in my client’s home.”
The elder Murphy listened to this, at times looking concerned, at times exasperated as prosecutors spoke. He was seated in the audience directly behind his son on the other side of the railing, next to Tephanie Holston, Taylonn Jr.’s mother. Murphy must have had some understanding of how his son might be feeling. His own experience with the court system was the subject of a New Yorker profile last October: In 1991 he had been tried for murder, proceedings that ended in a hung jury. There was a second trial; still he was not convicted. All the while he was held at Rikers. The D.A. threatened a third trial. Rather than risk it, Murphy took a plea deal for time served and was released in 1992.
He disputes how the district attorney has portrayed his son. He says Taylonn Jr. was as young as sixteen at the time of some of the things alleged in the indictment. New York is one of only two states — the other being North Carolina — where the age of criminal responsibility is sixteen. His son was nineteen when he was arrested in 2014.
“My children didn’t move to Grant until 2007,” Murphy said following the day’s proceedings. “They were twelve and fourteen, and my daughter was traveling all over the country playing basketball. This problem in the neighborhood has been going on for decades. It was already there.”
He said his children grew up in “this very turbulent environment” and didn’t know how to deal with it.
“Young people’s stress levels are so high. They find a common bond and now they’re hanging out — so they’re a gang now?” he asks. “What constitutes a gang? And being tried as an adult when your behavior is that of an adolescent? You’re trying to blame these young people for living in an atmosphere that wasn’t nurturing. This is a neighborhood that has been under anguish.”
The use of Facebook in building a case is problematic to Murphy, as well as to some experts contacted by the Voice.
“A lot of it has to do with adolescent bravado and identity formation — it’s a very complex thing. It’s not black and white. It’s part of their survival,” says David Brotherton, professor of sociology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, who studies gangs. He says the notion of conspiracy charges based on Facebook posts is “absurd.”
Social media being used by prosecutors to build criminal conspiracy cases raises difficult questions, agrees Ronald Goldstock, an attorney who served for thirteen years as director of the New York State Organized Crime Task Force and is on the faculty at the Cornell, Columbia, and New York University law schools.
“With social media, it makes the degrees of culpability more complicated,” Goldstock says. “When you get eighteen or twenty people, it’s hard to determine the individual culpability of each person. They’re all writing texts, emails, posting on Facebook. For a jury to determine who actually did what and how that fits in becomes really difficult. Most people plea out because if you get convicted, it could be 25 years.”
The trial, in the court of Judge Edward Jude McLaughlin, is scheduled to continue throughout the week and upcoming month.
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