The state’s highest court ordered a new trial Thursday for an alleged member of a Roxbury street gang convicted of 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.
On Thursday, Gray told his appellate attorney, Robert F. Shaw Jr. that he welcomed the ruling in his favor. “I feel like I can breathe,’’ Gray told Shaw, the attorney said in an interview.
But the mother and relatives of Taylor said they were saddened to face the prospect of reliving Taylor’s murder. The family said it had spent the past three years, since Gray was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole, slowly piecing their altered lives together.
“We were hoping to have this behind us and move forward with our lives three years ago, but now find ourselves moving backward,’’ Taylor’s mother, Sarah Coleman, said in a statement. “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.”
In a 39-page ruling, 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 at the time of the 2006 murder. 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 the 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. A Boston police gang detective testified that the video depicted Gray acknowledging his membership in the Heath Street gang.
But the SJC said the officer was a specialist 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.
“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.’’
But a spokesman for Conley faulted the SJC for singling out the rap video but not other evidence in the case that links Gray to the death of Taylor, a Belmont High student with no gang or criminal involvement.
“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,’’ spokesman Jake Wark said in a statement. “ . . . As we told [Taylor’s] 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.’’