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Bromley-Heath gang member's murder conviction overturned; rap video plays role in decision

UPDATE: Reactions from the DA's office and the victim's family in the comments below.

The Supreme Judicial Court today ordered a new trial for Lamory Gray, ruling the Heath Street gang member got an unfair trial before he was convicted of murdering somebody he thought was a member of the rival H-Block gang in 2006.

The court ruled a rap video, in which Gray was seen apparently pledging as a member of Heath Street, should not have been entered as evidence in his 2009 trial because it unfairly prejudiced the jury against him without having any direct connection to Herman Taylor's murder. Taylor was a Metco student who had nothing to do with gangs.

The judge in the case at first rejected a prosecution request to show the video, but relented when Gray's lawyer appeared to contest the assertion that Gray was a member of the gang.

The state's highest court called that a mistake. Prosecutors had other, less prejudicial evidence that Gray was a Heath Street member at the height of its bloody feud with H-Block - he had an entry in a BPD gang database, for example.

And, the court said, simply participating in a rap video doesn't mean one is admitting to anything - since rap is a form of artistic expression. It's past time, the court said, to give rap artists the same due as people such as Johnny Cash, who sang about shooting a man to watch him die, and Bob Marley, who sang he shot the sheriff, even though neither actually did so:

We discern no reason why rap music lyrics, unlike any other musical form, should be singled out and viewed sui generis as literal statements of fact or intent.

The court added the BPD detective who explained the video to the judge might be an expert in gangs, but he failed to provide any bona fides for analyzing rap music:

Although [a BPD detective] asserted during [a court hearing] that the video "consists of discussing being a Heath Street gang member and what takes place or what's done or conducted by individuals who are Heath Street gang members," there was no evidence that Sheehan was an expert on music video recordings or rap music. 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.

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Good thing there is no budget crisis or anything.

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Statement by Jake Wark, spokesman for the Suffolk County District Attorney's office:

This was a case of gang violence claiming the life of a truly innocent boy and not, as the high court seemed to suggest, a sociological study of rap music. The defendant's gang allegiance was made plain by his participation in a Heath Street gang video. Judge Gaziano, an experienced and respected trial judge, rightly ruled that defense counsel opened the door to its admissibility by implying that Gray had not been identified as a Heath Street gang member until after the murder. The video was presented to the jury to rebut that implication and show the defendant's role in the violent, real-world gang feud well before Herman was killed.

As the high court was aware from the full record, the witness who "misidentified" the defendant in the grand jury knew him well. The abundant evidence suggests that he deliberately selected another person's photo to avoid violating the street code of silence by testifying accurately. Here again, it was defense counsel who made a strategic decision not to bring it to the jury's attention. Prosecutors would have proven its falsehood by introducing additional testimony that he knew Gray well and knew him to be a Heath Street gang member.

We are reviewing our options in light of today's decision, but as we told his family when we informed them of the high court's decision, we're determined to see justice done for Herman, his family, and his community.

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Statement from the Family of Herman Taylor III

The Coleman and Luse Family are shocked by the recent news concerning their beloved son and brother, Herman Taylor III's, case. The family is saddened to have to endure another trial however will respect the decision and process at this time.

Herman's mother, Sarah Coleman, states "We were hoping to have this behind us and move forward with our lives three years ago, but now find ourselves moving backwards. We will support whatever needs to be done and see it through wholeheartedly, like the first time. However, situations such as these test your faith in the justice system."

The family would like to extend a special thank you to the District Attorney's Office and the Peace Institute for their ongoing support during this difficult time and would appreciate time to process this very personal matter.

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