Last week, another black youth was found guilty of murder. Another kid from the housing projects.
This time it was Taylonn Murphy Jr. He was one of the last remaining open cases from the largest gang bust in New York City history. Whether or not Murphy actually committed murder—there was no physical evidence, no DNA, no surveillance video of the shooting, no weapon—the trial was a clear demonstration of the way prosecutors push the limits in order to get a conviction.
In the case of Murphy, the facts are these: He was arrested in the 2014 raid of Harlem’s Manhattanville and Grant housing projects and was subsequently charged with the 2011 murder of Walter “Recc” Sumter.
The backstory was this: Murphy’s sister Tayshana was shot dead in the hallway of their building in the Grant Houses in 2011. Taylonn was sixteen at the time. Sumter later posted a video mocking Tayshana’s death two weeks before his murder. Murphy took to Facebook to post a menacing reply: “Dead on sight beef.”
The bigger story is this: Murphy took a chance with a jury and lost. And he probably will serve many more years in prison for having tried to fight his case instead of taking a plea.
That’s not to say he isn’t guilty; we don’t know, and the jury, for now at least, has spoken. But of the 103 young men and youth arrested and indicted in June 2014 for activity tied to three gangs — Money Avenue, Make It Happen Boys, and 3Staccs — an astonishing 95 have pled guilty, many taking five- to fifteen-year plea deals. Almost none of them, only a handful, chose to go to trial like Murphy.
Those are amazing statistics. Some 93 percent of those rounded up that day took a plea rather than face trial, despite how thin the evidence against many of them appeared to be.
But as I wrote about at length a few weeks ago, the system is engineered to extract plea bargains from defendants. How do prosecutors do it?
For starters, set bail unrealistically high. Then, as the arrestee’s family hunts for the money to get him out, he sweats it out in Rikers or the Tombs or some other hellhole. The leverage begins.
Next, the DA overcharges him, which immediately establishes a much higher potential sentence and terrifies the accused with the possibility of spending decades in prison. And even as overcharging increases leverage on the accused to take a plea, it makes the likely outcome of that plea worse, given that the negotiation is starting from a more extreme position.
Then, throw in a conspiracy charge, which lowers the bar for the prosecution: All DAs have to show under these tough-to-beat statues is that there was an agreement to engage in criminal activity and “overt acts” in furtherance of that agreement. The accused doesn’t even need to be at the scene to be convicted, let alone get caught in the act.
Now, whether the suspect has managed to post bail or is still languishing in jail, and assuming like the vast majority of defendants in the gang case he cannot afford a private attorney, he meets his court-appointed lawyer — a so-called “18 B” lawyer who’s too overworked to take every case to the mat. About 1,000 such lawyers exist in the city, and odds of going to trial with an 18-B lawyer are slim: of the 236,479 cases handled by the 18-B panel in 2015, only 360 (less than one percent) went to trial.
Finally, let the accused know that his case will heard by Judge Edward Jude McLaughlin, sometimes referred to as “the hanging judge” of Manhattan criminal court. Last November, another young man in the case who was sentenced by McLaughlin got sixty and a half years. This is how he rolls, and everyone knows it.
In the face of all of the above, 93 percent of the 103 defendants in this case caved.
But for those few who chose to go to trial, that was only the beginning. Once the trial kicks off, if you’re a DA lacking hard evidence such as DNA or a weapon, you will do whatever it takes to sully and demonize the defendant. (In Taylonn’s case, this even included transforming his murdered sister from the innocent victim she’d been three years earlier into a gangbanger herself, presumably to align her with her brother’s 3Staccs crew.)
“The prosecutor will never personalize the defendant,” says Ikiesha Al-Shabazz Whittaker, a former Manhattan prosecutor. “They’ll dirty up his character any way they can. There are a lot of psychological games to get jurors to think and feel a certain way. They use those mind games whether there’s evidence or not.”
Those games include things like repeatedly exhorting the jury to use “common sense” to see that Murphy was guilty, implying that jurors would be stupid to come to any other conclusion. At trial, the DA even quietly swapped out the street name listed in Murphy’s indictment, “Bam Bam,” for one they later found in a Facebook post, “Mack Truck Bam,” an apparent attempt to make him sound more threatening. Whittaker says those tricks are commonplace.
Then there are those conspiracy statutes. Not only useful for pushing a defendant to a plea, they also make it easier to secure a conviction at trial. “Once a conspiracy is proven, the prosecutor enjoys several important procedural advantages. The most important being significant relaxation of the bar against hearsay evidence,” says Ian Weinstein, law professor at Fordham University. “The least involved person in the conspiracy is as guilty of conspiracy as the most involved person.”
As for the lack of physical evidence, Manhattan District Attorney Andrew Warshawer repeatedly encouraged the jury “to see through coded language” in Facebook posts to arrive at a guilty verdict.
And just in case anyone on the jury started to feel sorry for this poor black 20-year-old who’d grown up in the projects and was now facing life in prison, Warshawer, in his closing arguments, reminded them that “to say that it is an inevitable byproduct of growing up in public housing is untrue.”
And he’s right; it’s not inevitable. But there may be some relationship. As Robert Garot, a professor of sociology and youth gang expert at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, points out, there are external forces at play in poorer neighborhoods, and the absence of social programs and the existence of criminal activity is a phenomenological reality young people face on a daily basis in high-poverty areas.
“Every young person is trying to find a way — where they fit in and what they should do with themselves,” Garot says. “And it’s a time when their brains haven’t fully developed, so of course, the decisions aren’t going to be what me — as a 49-year-old — would call rational.”
Taylonn Murphy Jr. was found guilty of all of the top counts in the indictment, including conspiracy, assault, and second-degree murder in the killing of Sumter. The verdict seemed to be based almost entirely on the testimony of three fellow gang members who, when faced with the kinds of leverage enumerated above, agreed to testify against Murphy in exchange for reduced sentences. Two of those witnesses were members of a rival gang, and only those two said they saw the murder take place.