Two Men Found Guilty in Murder of Run-D.M.C. DJ

A jury found two men guilty of murdering the pioneering and world-famous DJ Jam Master Jay in 2002 at the conclusion of a federal trial on Tuesday. The verdict ends decades of speculation about why Jay, whose real name was Jason Mizell, had been killed. The jurors delivered the decision after weeks of testimony at the U.S. District Court – Eastern Division of New York courthouse in Brooklyn.

Karl Jordan Jr. and Ronald Washington were charged with murder “while engaged in a narcotics trafficking conspiracy and firearm-related murder,” per the Department of Justice.

“More than two decades after they killed Jason Mizell in his recording studio, Jordan and Washington have finally been held accountable for their cold-blooded crime driven by greed and revenge,” United States Attorney Breon Peace said. “That the victim, professionally known as Jam Master Jay, was a hip-hop icon and Run-D.M.C.’s music was born in Hollis, Queens, in this very district, and beloved by so many, adds to the tragedy of a life senselessly cut short.”

In 2020, U.S. attorneys indicted Jordan and Washington of conspiring to kill and conducting the murder of Mizell after a drug deal went bad. Mizell, U.S. attorneys claimed, had begun selling cocaine when Run-D.M.C.’s popularity started to fade, and that when a drug dealer refused to work with him if he included Washington in their plan for distribution, Washington and Jordan planned Mizell’s death.

In 2023, the government added another man, Jay Bryant, to the indictment, claiming that he helped Jordan and Washington gain access to Mizell, who was playing video games at a recording studio at the time of his death. Bryant is set to be tried in January 2026. Jordan and Washington each face a minimum of 20 years, with sentencing set for a later date. Jordan has also been charged with conspiracy to distribute cocaine and will be tried at a later date, per the DOJ.

Judge LaShann DeArcy Hall instructed attendees to remain calm, though it was anything but that once the verdict was read. “Y’all just killed two innocent people,” Washington yelled after the verdict was announced. A supporter of Jordan screamed, “Bullshit. Bullshit. He didn’t do it. The feds made the witnesses lie.”

Carlis Thompson, Mizell’s first cousin who was a constant presence in the courtroom, spoke about the verdict outside the courthouse. “It’s definitely a long time coming,” he said. “I’m just glad justice was served.”

Thompson said that the family had long suspected the defendants and was disappointed that it took eyewitnesses so long to come forward to police. Thompson called today the “meat-and-potatoes day” of justice, but said he believed it was only two-thirds done. He plans on attending Bryant’s trial when that begins.

“There’s other avenues we’re gonna explore; we have another motion we’re gonna be filing,” attorney John Diaz, from Jordan’s team, said after the verdict was read. “But yeah, we’re very disappointed with the verdict.”

“We’re very optimistic about the future,” Susan Kellman, who led Washington’s team, said. “The jury heard testimony about the person who did it. And it just sort of blows my mind. On the other hand, I wasn’t there. I wasn’t in the closet. I used to work for the speaker of the State Assembly and he’d say, ‘If you weren’t in the closet watching, you don’t know what the hell happened.’ We’re oddly optimistic.”

Jordan and Washington’s trial began on Jan. 29 with opening remarks in which U.S. attorneys told the jury that Jordan was Mizell’s godson, and that Washington was a childhood friend of the DJ. Nevertheless, when Mizell excluded Washington from a plot to distribute cocaine in Baltimore, the men converged on Jamaica, Queens’ 24/7 Studio at around 7:30 p.m. on Oct. 30, 2002.

Bryant came in the studio’s front entrance and let Washington and Jordan in through the fire escape in the back. Prosecutors alleged that Bryant left behind a hat with his DNA on it. Washington stood guard at the studio’s door while Jordan approached Mizell, who had taken to carrying a gun with him for protection in the days before his death.

During a salutational embrace, Jordan fired two shots from a .40-caliber gun, including one into Mizell’s skull at such a close range that it burned his hair and skin. Another bullet injured Mizell’s friend Uriel “Tony” Rincon, who was playing video games with Mizell. Rincon and a woman who worked for Mizell’s JMJ Records, Lydia High, were the only eyewitnesses to the shooting. Both appeared as witnesses and gave testimony during the trial. Others were in the studio’s control room and only heard the gunshots.

Attorney Miranda Gonzalez described the shooting as both an “ambush” and an “execution.” The motive, she said, was money. Washington had accompanied Mizell on a trip to Baltimore, where a drug dealer refused to work with him. Without Washington’s involvement in the drug-distribution scheme, he and Jordan would earn nothing. At the time, Washington was down on his luck and an alcoholic, and was living at Mizell’s sister’s house.

The attorney said that Rincon and High did not identify Washington and Jordan to authorities for years because they were afraid. Their lack of action later became a sticking point for the defense, which questioned their memories.

The defense attorneys’ opening remarks focused on the integrity of prosecution witnesses, alleging that some of them were giving testimony through “cooperation agreements,” and calling their memories into question. Jordan’s attorney, John Diaz, said he believed some of the witnesses’ testimonies had changed over time. Ezra Spilke, on Washington’s team, told the jury that the testimony all hinged on events that took place over 10 seconds 21 years ago.

When Rincon and High took the stand, though, both said they remembered those events vividly. Their testimonies, along with other witnesses’, provided a mosaic of what happened the night of the shooting, backing up the prosecution’s allegations. Even as witnesses testified against them, the defendants both looked optimistic and unfazed over their weeks on trial.

Rincon, who was a business associate of Mizell’s, told the jury he saw the studio door open and that Mizell warmly greeted the man who’d entered. “He walked directly to Jay and made a potential handshake — half a handshake — and at the same time I heard a couple of shots,” Rincon said. “At the same time, my mom called me. I dropped my phone and looked at him at the same time. I see Jay fall.” He said he remembered hearing the DJ say “Oh, shit” just before the shots. One of the bullets hit Rincon, whose eyes welled up during testimony, just above his left knee.

After identifying both Jordan and Washington, Rincon said he told High’s brother Randy Allen, who had been in the control room, which way the shooter had run. He told prosecutors he didn’t immediately tell the authorities who the killers were, even though he could see them clearly, because “I was surprised by who I saw and what happened.” He said he also feared for his and his family’s safety. He did not tell the authorities that he’d seen Jordan and Washington at the scene of the killing until 2017.

Allen testified that he ran after the killers and ultimately gave up when he didn’t see anyone. He’d grabbed Mizell’s gun but stashed it before running to the nearby police precinct. When the defense attorneys questioned why he didn’t just call 911, he said he felt going to the precinct would be faster. (This claim brought gasps of doubt from the gallery, and defense attorneys needled Allen on why he didn’t call 911, but he consistently said he thought going to the precinct would be faster.)

High’s testimony was similarly emotionally charged, with her saying that she didn’t feel comfortable naming the two defendants as the killers because she was afraid. Like Rincon, she remembered seeing Mizell initially smile when the killers entered. “[Mizell] lifted up and gave the person a pound,” she said. And then she heard the gunshots and tried to escape. “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 Washington by an alias. “[He had] a gun.” He told her to get down on the floor. She was in tears on the witness stand as she recalled how two men jumped over her, making their exits.

Although she couldn’t name Jordan specifically as the shooter, she said the shooter had a neck tattoo like Jordan’s. She had no trouble identifying Washington, however, since she’d known him for years and could see him plainly. She said she didn’t name him to police out of fear, and that she’d even moved away from New York after the shooting. (Defense attorneys homed in on discrepancies in statements she gave to the police in the past, and she, like Rincon, said she was alarmed by whom she saw as the killers. She added that her vantage points on a couch and the floor made the men seem bigger than they are, which is how she described them to police.)

Allen recalled witnessing a horror show in the immediate aftermath of the shooting. “I saw my sister [High] lying on the left side of the door, crying and screaming,” he said in his testimony. “I saw Tony hopping on one leg, and I looked down at Jay, and he’s lying there. He was shot. There was blood coming from his head.… [Lydia] was just crying hysterically.”

Allen said both High and Rincon confided the identities of the murderers to him, but that he withheld this info from authorities because he thought it was High’s and Rincon’s stories to tell. Once, in the past, when he’d tried to talk about the night of the shooting with High, he told the jury, she stopped talking to him for two years. “She’s very, very emotional,” he said. “It was up to her to tell it.”

Other witnesses described Mizell as seeming “nervous about something” in the days before he was killed. One of Mizell’s cousins, Stephon Wotford, testified that in that same time frame, Washington had said, “Something bad is going to happen.” When Washington’s lawyer, Susan Kellman, asked Wotford how he could remember that time so well, he said, “2002 was a tragedy in my life.”

Ralph Mullgrav, the convicted drug dealer who cut Washington out of the deal, reluctantly gave testimony. He spoke to Mizell’s alleged plan to move drugs in Baltimore, and said that when he saw Washington, whom he’d known since childhood, he ran for a gun. But he defended Mizell’s memory. “Jay wasn’t a drug dealer,” Mullgrav told the jury. “He just used it to make ends meet here and there.”

Daynia McDonald, who used to date Washington, told the jury he’d “basically” confessed to killing Mizell during their relationship. When she’d asked him how he knew details of the killing, he told her, “Because I was there.” McDonald’s testimony, however, almost upended the whole proceedings, since one of the prosecutors’ leading questions prompted Washington’s attorney, Kellman, to request a mistrial. Judge DeArcy Hall denied the request and chided the prosecutor for his phrasing.

There were also many law-enforcement officers, including one who responded to the studio right after the crime happened. He described a chaotic scene, which was aggravated by a lack of video evidence. There was no footage from the building’s security cameras, he testified, because the VHS system had not been recording.

The defense lawyers put forth only one witness, an expert on memory who attempted to explain how one’s perception of events can change with time.

Mizell’s death occurred at a time when Run-D.M.C. were attempting a comeback. The trio had taken a break after 1993’s Down With the King, since gangsta rap was on the rise, but had recommitted themselves in 2001 with a new album, Crown Royal, and songs produced by Kid Rock, Jermaine Dupri, Stephan Jenkins, and, of course, Jam Master Jay, among others. Mizell was also trying to make ends meet with his JMJ Records label, which had just signed Rusty Waters, a group that included Allen. Mizell was supposed to go on tour with Rusty Waters the day after he was killed.

At the time of his death, New York authorities promised a reward of $50,000 for any leads that would help solve the homicide. Music-industry execs, as well as Eminem, Jay-Z, and Aerosmith, among others, teamed up to offer an additional $250,000. Nevertheless, it took decades to close the case.

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Darryl “D.M.C.” McDaniels released a statement in 2020 commending the law-enforcement groups who worked on indicting Jordan and Washington. “It’s been a difficult 18 years not having him around while knowing that his murderers were not yet indicted for this heinous crime,” McDaniels said. “I commend NYPD, NYC Detectives, Federal Agents and all the law enforcement who were involved in this case, for not giving up and working to bring justice for Jay. I realize this is a first step in the judicial process, but I hope Jay can finally Rest in Peace.”

Thompson, Mizell’s cousin, said he hopes people remember Mizell as a kind soul. “Jason was an amazing talent,” he said. “He loved everybody. He could never say no and that’s one of the reasons why some of the people around him were undesirables, if you will, because he didn’t push people away. I think that contributed to where we’re at today.”

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