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Gangbusters: Law Enforcement’s Dubious Means to Police Public Housing Residents

With no solid evidence, prosecutors use questionable witness testimony and social media posts to depict a criminal conspiracy.

(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

Over the course of his month-and-a-half-long trial, court officers would lead out a handcuffed Taylonn Murphy Jr., who’d quickly smile at his father, Taylonn Murphy Sr., and mother, Tephanie Holston. If they were late, the 20-year-old would look over his shoulder at the sound of courtroom doors opening and closing, searching for them. But those doors won’t be opening anymore for Taylonn’s family: A Manhattan jury recently convicted Taylonn for the killing of Walter Sumter just after Christmas 2011. His case has shed some light on the strategies, both in and out of court, of law enforcement officials focused on young men in public housing.

Taylonn’s trial stemmed from a 2014 gang raid in West Harlem, then the biggest raid in New York City’s history.

Taylonn’s trial stemmed from a 2014 gang raid in West Harlem, then the biggest raid in New York City’s history. It took on the feel of a mafia trial. Posters littered with young Black and Brown faces stared at a mixed jury every morning. Launched primarily in Harlem’s Grant and Manhattanville public housing developments, the 2014 sweep was the culmination of Operation Crew Cut, a policing strategy said to target violent “crews,” a looser grouping often conflated with gangs. Most of the 103 indictments from the raid never went to trial. Ninety-three young men pled guilty, seeking to avoid extraordinary jail sentences. Much of that had to do with the conspiracy charges leveled against them —things they may not have done themselves.

Taylonn Murphy Sr. was always sharply dressed for court. He’d listen intently to every word uttered by the prosecutors, Andrew Warshawer and Jon Veiga, and the court’s extroverted judge, Edward McLaughlin. The elder Taylonn has, for years, worked to combat street violence and mass incarceration. His son, also known as “Bam,” was now at the center of it all, facing life in prison. He was accused of pulling the trigger of the gun that killed Sumter and also of being in a violent crew, 3Staccs, at the core of a feud between the Grant and Manhattanville Houses. Taylonn’s sister, Tayshana “Chicken” Murphy was killed on September 11, 2011 (coincidentally, the 10-year anniversary of 9/11), by two men from Manhattanville. Sumter, a Manhattanville resident, had posted a music video in 2011 making light of her death. Taylonn had killed Sumter over it, prosecutors claimed.

A Prosecutor’s Judge

Assistant District Attorney Andrew Warshawer has a fair amount of experience prosecuting gang conspiracy cases. In 2012, he and Judge McLaughlin were in similar roles for the trial of Hodean and Kadean Graham, twins and half brothers of Ramarley Graham, an unarmed young man killed by a police officer in front of his grandmother that same year. Warshawer won a conviction against the Graham twins along the same lines that he would with Taylonn: Young men in gangs were terrorizing Harlem.

McLaughlin, who presides over most of the gun cases in Manhattan, dominates his courtroom with a crusading tone that occasionally gives way to eyebrow-raising, sometimes outlandish comments from the bench. After threatening everyone in court, including lawyers, not to bring up Ramarley’s name during the twins’ trial, McLaughlin brought up Ramarley’s name himself. As he handed the twins the maximum sentence, he suggested that they shared in the blame for Ramarley’s death. The family was outraged.

With prosecutors dangling lengthy conspiracy charges over all three young men, it perhaps made little sense not to cooperate.

When Frank Graham, the father of Ramarley and the Graham twins, showed up to Taylonn’s trial, you could feel the tension in the air. McLaughlin’s eyes darted over to Graham every so often. During a break, McLaughlin stepped down from the bench to whisper to a New York Times reporter and nod over in Graham’s direction. McLaughlin was intensely aware of everyone in his court, but especially members of the media. His imposing and sometimes erratic behavior was that of a showman — but it also seemed to reveal a sense of insecurity. McLaughlin appeared to want to control the media narrative like he controlled the court.

Taylonn’s trial entered its second week with McLaughlin’s cell phone suddenly going off in court. The trial stopped as he chatted on the phone for a few minutes. A cooperating witness, Javon Brown, took the stand. Brown was from Grant and identified as 3Staccs. His testimony was crucial for the prosecution. Brown, who made a deal with prosecutors, testified that Taylonn confessed to the murder and showed him a gun just weeks before Sumter was shot. Brown claimed he’d been to Taylonn’s house multiple times. Taylonn’s mother was astounded; Taylonn lived with her but she’d never seen Brown before, she said. She shook her head in disbelief.

McLaughlin abruptly stopped the trial, ordered the jurors out and began to chastise Holston for “mouthing something.” The judge was livid. “Let the chips fall where they may,” McLaughlin said as he stared at the mother and threatened to have her arrested in court. “If you think I’m kidding, you haven’t researched the last 32 years of my career.”

“Dirtying Him Up”

From the outset, the prosecution’s case seemed thin. Retired detective Thaddeus Hall testified about the night of the Sumter shooting. Hall said cops took Taylonn into custody as he tried to take a cab near where Sumter had been killed leaving a party on West 158th Street in Manhattan. Hall interviewed Taylonn for hours but released him. No gun residue tests were taken of Taylonn’s clothes and no gun was recovered. To this day no murder weapon was ever found.

Warshawer instead relied on the crew conspiracy, calling police officers from various specialized units to the stand. Anti-crime detectives testified that multiple crews operated in and around Grant and Manhattanville Houses. The Money Avenue crew was primarily in Manhattanville while 3Staccs was based in Grant, they said. Hours upon hours of the trial were dedicated to the crew rivalry. The jury was shown Facebook photos of Taylonn making hand signs with three fingers out, a sign for 3Staccs, prosecutors said.

Two cooperating witnesses from Manhattanville, Taylonn’s supposed rivals, were called to the stand. Dominic Washington had been extradited from Virginia on murder conspiracy charges. He was one of the 103 indicted. He was looking at a possible sentence of 25 to life. He was with Sumter the night he died. After meeting with police and prosecutors, he entered into a formal cooperation agreement in December 2014. The agreement would reduce his plea deal to five years, perhaps two or three years served.

During his testimony, Washington, a self-proclaimed member of Money Avenue, painted a picture of Harlem crews, which also included Skrilla Hill and the Block Boys. He described how crew members would hide guns, which were shared communally, in garbage cans and memorize license plates of unmarked police cars. They tried to avoid shooting bystanders, he said, and also did positive things, like organize barbecues and basketball games. According to Washington, crews were social groups, not just violent gangs — though he didn’t deny the violent side.

Gang membership alone, Taylonn’s lawyers argued in their summation, “doesn’t constitute a criminal conspiracy.”

Warshawer hadn’t dragged Washington in from Rikers Island to testify about barbecues, though. He wanted to convince the jury not only of the violence of crews, but also to align that violence with Taylonn. Lacking strong evidence, the prosecutor didn’t necessarily need to prove Taylonn’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt; he needed to build up enough suspicion to trump the doubt. He wanted the jury to believe that Taylonn could have pulled that trigger. Had he seen Taylonn shoot Sumter? Warshawer asked Washington. Yes, Washington answered, pointing out Taylonn in court. And with that, a handcuffed Washington was led out of court, shaving years off of his own sentence.

Washington wasn’t the only cooperating witness pulled in by the Manhattan district attorney; there was also Kenneth Thomas, another admitted Money Avenue crew member. Thomas fingered Taylonn in court but had refused to sign police paperwork in 2011 naming Taylonn as Sumter’s killer. From 2011 until 2014, no one had spoken about Sumter’s death. Now, after their own indictments, years after the killing, Washington and Thomas seemed to recall everything. But their accounts conflicted, describing the shooter’s clothes differently, for example. Washington’s story also conflicted with itself: At various times, he placed himself at different vantage points in relation to where the shooting occurred. In testimony at another trial, he claimed he’d seen the shooting from the street. At Taylonn’s trial, he said he saw it from the top of a staircase.

None of that mattered, though. The witnesses would still get their cooperating deals from the Manhattan district attorney’s office, no matter what they said. And with prosecutors dangling lengthy conspiracy charges over all three young men, it perhaps made little sense not to cooperate.

Emotion filled the courtroom as Warshawer pulled out Tayshana “Chicken” Murphy as a chip in his poker game. In order to hype up the 3Staccs-Grant nexus, the young assistant district attorney insinuated that the slain nationally ranked high school basketball star was also in the crew. Chicken had been depicted as a peacemaker by the Manhattan DA in other trials, her father said. Now, as prosecutors tried to convict her brother, she was a gangbanger.

To prove their point, the prosecution unsealed records of an arrest from 2011 where it was alleged that Chicken and Taylonn, who was 14 at the time, had assaulted someone to whom they’d sold a belt. The case was dismissed and charges dropped as police noted the “complainant incredible.” Still, the suggestion that the siblings were involved in violent crime was made to the jury in a bid to bury Taylonn’s character. McLaughlin allowed all of it. “They’re dirtying him up,” Taylonn Murphy Sr. said. “This is how they operate.”

As Warshawer dragged this dead girl’s name into court in order to solidify the gang conspiracy charges against her brother, their father walked out of the room.

The Gangbuster

Occasionally during the trial, the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus Vance Jr., would sit silently in the last row of the courtroom. Vance’s father, Cy Vance Sr., had worked in the US Department of Defense before becoming secretary of state under President Jimmy Carter. Vance Jr. came into office looking to make a name for himself as a gangbuster. He began to indict members of small crews all over the city with conspiracy charges, including 62 young men in East Harlem in a 2012 raid. The 2014 Grant-Manhattanville raid, however, was his crown jewel. Afterward, he and Bill Bratton, commissioner of the New York City Police Department (NYPD), held a joint press conference to announce they were at war with Harlem’s gangs.

In the city’s war on gangs, simply living in public housing can make you a suspect.

Vance’s style has been described as a “moneyball approach to crime.” As violent crime has fallen dramatically throughout the city, Vance shifted his office’s focus to stamping out small amounts of violent crime that persisted. Each precinct in the borough was asked to provide the names of their top 25 local offenders. From those names, Vance’s office created a database of about 9,000 people across the city. Armed with information provided by police on these so-called “crime drivers,” Vance’s office created the Arrest Alert system to flag each time any of these alleged troublemakers was arrested for a minor offense, a parole violation or really anything.

A fight or an alleged robbery could mean prosecutors and police pulling you in for a meeting to ask for information on people in the neighborhood. The information didn’t have to be accurate; it just had to build up into something that could come in handy for a case down the line, as Taylonn would learn. Through this, Vance and the NYPD not only kept close tabs on suspected offenders, but also created a pool of intelligence malleable enough to come in handy for convictions.

“We pull people arrested on low-level misdemeanor charges, maybe two or three a week,” Kerry Chicon, one of Vance’s prosecutors, said in a 2014 interview with The New York Times Magazine. “We read them their Miranda rights. About 80 percent of them will talk. If you speak to a 16-year-old, they might tell you, ‘This kid is running things, this kid is a hanger-on.’ That’s how we find out information like whether a gang has changed their name.”

“You Can’t Put a Pile of Facebook Posts on the Witness Stand”

Vance’s office got a lot of convictions. Most of the time, the imposing sentences scared people into copping a plea. But from time to time, someone would choose to go to trial. And at trial, it wasn’t just witnesses that were necessary; language itself became instrumental.

Washington had testified about the coded language of gangs. At first, the terms resembled common street slang: “boys” meant cops, “suits” meant homicide detectives, “DTs” meant undercover officers. Fair enough. But then everyday words, like “that,” supposedly meant something far more insidious. “Bring me that,” for example, meant bring me a gun, according to Warshawer. Transcripts of calls made from Rikers Island, if interpreted this way, could now be seen as smoking barrels of guilt. “Food,” for example, didn’t mean food, according to the prosecutor: It was code for bullets.

Without a murder weapon, forensic evidence, video of the shooting or credible witnesses, the case hinged largely on social media posts. Police and prosecutors had been monitoring Taylonn’s Facebook page since 2011; they had aggregated posts and private messages using a program from Palantir, a spy-heavy software company funded by the CIA. Palantir was named after the seeing stones used by the evil wizard Saruman in The Lord of the Rings movies. Palantir’s founder, Peter Thiel, also cofounded PayPal and sits on Facebook’s board of directors.

Using Palantir, the Manhattan DA’s office measured Taylonn’s Facebook activity from December 2011 through January 2012. Taylonn’s posts diminished just around the time of the Sumter shooting on December 29, 2011. He was trying to keep a low profile, a sign of guilt, prosecutors suggested. Yet in other instances, they pointed to increased Facebook posting as proof of criminality. Boastful posts and pictures were indicators of gang life, they had previously said. But now, not posting was an indicator of guilt. With Facebook, Warshawer had “evidence” he could mold to fit any narrative, it seemed. Too much posting, guilty. Not enough posting, guilty.

A look at the longer trends on his posting habits showed that there were ebbs and flows, as one might expect. Taylonn’s lawyers tried to sway the jurors away from the prosecution’s reasoning that online activity was proof of anything. “You can’t put a pile of Facebook posts in the witness stand,” they argued.

The Shadow of Suspicion

Among the most revealing aspects of Taylonn Murphy’s trial were the testimonies from police officers. Anti-crime, narcotics, gun specialists and a number of plainclothes cops spoke candidly about their gang-busting tactics. The implication was made several times that anyone in Grant could be in 3Staccs.”When you mean 3Staccs and Grant Houses, do you mean the same thing?” Warshawer asked a detective. No, maybe not everyone, the detective answered. The parade of police officers who testified, however, didn’t seem intent on making a clear distinction.

While some Grant residents might affiliate with 3Staccs, not everyone in the crew was committing acts of violence. Gang membership alone, Taylonn’s lawyers argued in their summation, “doesn’t constitute a criminal conspiracy.” You wouldn’t arrest an infield player from the New York Yankees, they argued, for something an outfield player did. In one drug case against an alleged 3Staccs member, cops raided the apartment only to find a small amount of marijuana and $196 in cash locked inside a box. Most of these “gang members” were little more than low-level drug dealers, not part of a real gang or the organized crime organizations that these conspiracy laws had been designed to take down.

Warshawer had presented the jury with dozens of pictures of young men and women from Grant Houses holding three fingers up, a symbol, he said, for 3Staccs. At one point a picture showing Taylonn Murphy Sr.’s 2-year-old grandson holding up his three little fingers was shown. Murphy clenched his fist, trembling with anger and trying to contain himself. “My grandson? They’re using my grandson?” he whispered as he bit his knuckle.

One detective from the 32nd Precinct was asked about what he and others would look for to try to figure out who the gang members were. “If an individual had a placard,” he said, referring to laminated pictures of people killed by violence that are often worn to commemorate them, “of Chicken or Sumter, I would look at them a little bit further.”

In public housing, and communities of color more generally, it’s common to see young people wearing shirts and placards with the names and pictures of shooting victims. Young boys and girls from Spanish Harlem’s Wagner Houses, for example, began wearing photo placards of 16-year-old Juwan “Chico” Tavarez after he was killed by an unknown gunman in March. In early April, in a show of force, police repeatedly showed up at Wagner, 50 to 60 at a time, shutting down the filming of a music video to commemorate Chico. Tensions with young residents continued for days.

Vance’s gang-busting efforts have shifted back to the east side of Harlem since the shooting death of a police officer there last October. An early morning raid in the Washington and East River Houses this time included FBI agents decked out in full military tactical gear. With aerial support from helicopters armed with infrared cameras, they arrested 32 suspects. Last week in the Bronx, multiple federal agencies partnered with the NYPD to conduct a predawn raid in the Bronx’s Eastchester Gardens Houses, reportedly arresting 120 suspects — passing West Harlem for the biggest sweep ever.

As dozens of young people wear long lanyards with a picture of Chico and the words “CHICO WORLD” on it as they walk home from school, one has to wonder who is being surveilled and what cases are being built by prosecutors given a mandate to lock up gangbangers. In the city’s war on gangs, simply living in public housing can make you a suspect.

Taylonn Murphy Jr. was 14 years old when law enforcement began to monitor him. He is to be sentenced next month, two years after a raid that forever changed the lives of dozens of families in West Harlem.

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