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Jam Master Jay Initially Smiled at Man Who Fatally Shot Him

A woman who worked as business manager for Jam Master Jay‘s label at the time of his death gave emotional testimony in the Brooklyn trial for the two men indicted for killing him in 2002.

Lydia High was crying and often paused to collect herself Monday while telling the jury about how she had originally planned a quick visit to the recording studio where the Run-DMC DJ, whose legal name was Jason Mizell, was working. It was Oct. 30, 2002, and he was leaving for a Run-DMC tour the next day. Before he could leave, though, he needed to sign paperwork, signing a new artist to his label. Once she got his endorsement, she would go to dinner.

A trip to the studio in Jamaica, Queens, was unusual for High, who wears glasses and pulled back her shoulder-length hair in court. She typically worked in the Manhattan office for JMJ Records, which was then an imprint of Def Jam. She told the jury she didn’t like going to the studio because of its “clubhouse” atmosphere and how it felt like a generally unprofessional work environment. Nevertheless, she arrived around 7:00 or 7:15; Mizel was killed at 7:30. High is one of only two known eyewitnesses to the shooting.

“I first saw Jay and Tony sitting there on the couch,” she told the jury, referring to Uriel “Tony” Rincon, who testified last week that he’d been shot in the leg during the incident. As soon as she entered, she noticed Mizell’s gun next to him on the couch and remembered chiding him, “Why do you have that there? I don’t like guns.” His answer was simply, “Don’t worry about it. Let’s get done what we need to get done.” (Last week, another witness, Stephon Watford, told the jury that Mizell had started carrying a gun in the days prior to the killing. Watford said that around that time, Mizell “was nervous about something.”)

High situated herself on a couch across from Mizell and Rincon, who were playing video games, and Mizell paused to sign all the paperwork. Then, she said, somebody entered the studio. That person strode over to the DJ and greeted him. “Jason smiled,” she said. “[Mizell] lifted up and gave the person a pound.” High slowed her speech: “And then he said, ‘Oh, shit.’”

High heard the gun that killed Mizell, but she doesn’t recall seeing the gun. “I jumped up and I ran for the door,” she told the jury. “I got to the door, and the person that was standing there told me to get down on the ground. It was Tinard,” she said, referring to an alias for defendant Ronald Washington. “[He had] a gun.”

“Was he pointing it at you?” prosecutor Artie McConnell asked. “Yes,” she said.

Sometime after she got on the floor, she remembered two people jumping over her and running to the door. She ran over to Mizell. During testimony, High was crying too much to be able to tell the jury what condition she found him in.

High testified that she had known Washington “for years,” adding that she had “no trouble recognizing his face.” All she could see of the man who shot Mizell was that he was a fair-skinned Black man with a tattoo on his neck. (Jordan, incidentally, was wearing a turtleneck in court.)

As with Rincon last week, High did not name either Washington or Jordan as the alleged shooters until more than a decade had passed. Her reason for withholding the information from law enforcement was the same as Rincon’s: “I was afraid.” She said that she moved to another city within a year or two of Mizell’s killing.

Attorney Mark DeMarco, who’s defending Jordan, focused his cross-examination on why she met with law enforcement several times without identifying a shooter. He mentioned that her initial description of the shooter was a man who was 6’2″, heavyset, wearing a ski mask and dark clothing, a description that doesn’t appear to match either defendant. She admitted to withholding the information. While answering the lawyer’s questions, she was often emotional, pausing before giving detailed answers. Throughout questioning, neither defendant seemed to make eye contact with the witness.

Cross-examination resumed later with Washington’s attorney, Susan Kellman, questioning High. The lawyer showed photos of the studio to the witness and the court, causing High to seize up in tears. She was able to verify that it was a photo of the studio but not much more; the picture faced where Mizell had been shot. Kellman showed more photos, which got similar reactions, and eventually Judge LeShann DeArcy Hall called a sidebar and they had to resume with a floorplan of the studio, including the door that Washington allegedly blocked.

“I was frantic … and shocked,” High said, sobbing. “I just jumped up.” When Kellman asked if anyone else was in the studio, High seemed to stumble in her testimony saying, “Yes, no, yes, no … I saw someone else,” before mentioning Washington again.

When Kellman started asking about Washington’s alleged role in the shooting, blocking the door, suggesting that he wasn’t involved, High exclaimed, “Why would you be blocking the door?” Judge DeArcy Hall stopped her from continuing. McConnell responded to this by reaffirming that Washington allegedly pointed a gun at High.

Earlier on Monday, another witness, described by U.S. attorneys as “recalcitrant,” gave testimony about another facet of the case against the defendants. Ralph Mullgrav, a former drug dealer who was wearing a mask and a winter jacket, gave curt answers to both prosecutors and defense attorneys about his role in a plan to sell “a few keys” of cocaine around Baltimore, where he was living.

“[Jason and I] had a deal with some cocaine,” he said. “He was asking me to move it for him.” (Part of the prosecutors’ case against the defendants is their allegation that Mizell was serving as a middleman in dealing cocaine; the government alleges that Washington and Jordan wanted in on the deal.)

Mullgrav’s problem with the deal was that it would involve “a guy I grew up with named Tinard,” so, “I told [Jason] no.” The witness recalled seeing a car pull up one day, recognizing Washington and reacting by running to get a gun he’d stashed on a tire of a car parked nearby. What was his intention? “To shoot [Washington].” Regarding Washington, Mullgrav said, “He was a problem,” and that Mizell spent the better part of a day trying to convince him to include Washington in the deal. “Jay wasn’t a drug dealer,” Mullgrav told the jury. “He just used it to make ends meet here and there.”

The third witness to testify on Monday was Derrick Parker, the self-proclaimed “Hip-Hop Cop,” who penned the memoir, The Notorious C.O.P. Parker, who has a beard and worked on the cases of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. (mentions of which the defense attorneys objected to), testified to providing security for High over the year that followed Mizell’s killing. It was DJ Eric B. who called him and asked him to get involved.

During the time he spent with High, Parker recalled she seemed “very nervous and very concerned” as he went with her grocery shopping and on other trips; he also went with her to Mizell’s funeral. He provided his services for free.

He told the jury he saw her getting a call at one point from someone that she later told him was “Big D,” defendant Jordan’s father. Without the jury present, the judge recommended that prosecutors not mention that it made her upset, and under cross examination, DeMarco confirmed with Parker that there was no way he could know who called High since he wasn’t on the phone call. DeMarco also alleged that Parker got involved with High so he could use her story to make money, which he denied.

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The trial kicked off last week with opening remarks from prosecutors that detailed Mizell’s role in trafficking cocaine. They alleged that when Mizell cut Washington out of the deal, he and Jordan, who both stood to make a lot of money from a potential deal, decided to kill Mizell. The U.S. attorneys described a situation in which another man, Jay Bryant, who will be tried in the future, let them into the recording studio where Mizell was hanging out and shot him, fleeing out the fire escape in the back.

Defense attorneys for Washington and Jordan claim that their clients are not the killers and that witnesses’ memories are not dependable after more than two decades. They also suggested that some witnesses may have entered into cooperation agreements for lighter sentences.

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