Detectives grill suspect accused of killing Irvin “Swirv” Jackson

City homicide detectives grilled Zaire Jackson in a small interrogation room inside the Trenton police department for more than two hours in April 2012. But they never got him to bend to their will.

They were hoping Zaire, in custody on an unrelated burglary charge, would supply them with a much-needed confession so they could string him up for the murder of Irvin “Swirv” Jackson.

Jackson, who is not related to Zaire Jacskon, was shot in the head in broad daylight on Moses Alley near North Hermitage Avenue on the afternoon April 9, 2012.

The tape of detectives’ two-hour interrogation of Zaire was played in court Wednesday during a Miranda hearing before Superior Court Judge Robert Billmeier. At one point during the April 20 interrogation, Trenton police Detective Scott Peterson called Zaire, 17 and just 34 days shy of his 18th birthday, a “ruthless, cold-blooded killer” and said he had “no doubt” he killed Jackson. He warned Zaire a jury would not believe his story if it went to trial, and that they would want to see remorse, not defiance, from the killer.

“Don’t give a f– about life,” Peterson told Zaire. “Not a care in the world. Nothing saving him. I guess that’s how you wanna be looked at. It’s a shame.”

Detectives employed various tactics to try to get Zaire to crack. They told him several witnesses identified him as the gunman in the brazen shooting. They said they obtained video surveillance that corroborated those witnesses’ statements and showed Zaire was in the vicinity of the shooting when he claimed he was with a friend most of the day. They said they believed Zaire acted in self-defense and they could help him if he just confessed.

It’s unclear if any of those claims are true or merely a bluff to con Zaire into a confession. Deputy First Assistant Prosecutor Kimm Lacken declined to comment about the case following the hearing.

Zaire’s defense attorney, Steve Lember, wants statements his client made during the interrogation suppressed because he said it’s unclear whether his client’s mother, Tonyell, signed a consent form that would allow detectives to interview Zaire, who was a juvenile at the time, about the homicide without his mother being present.

Two detectives testified they met with Tonyell at a hotel on April 20, 2012, and she signed the form hours after her son was taken into custody on an unrelated burglary charge. But the consent form was never produced during the hearing, and it’s unclear if police are still in possession of the consent form. The hearing broke before Lember had an opportunity to cross-examine James Francis of the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office’s special investigations unit about specifics of the interrogation. Francis was assigned to work on the homicide case with Peterson.

Detective Otis Smith of the U.S. Marshals New York/New Jersey Regional Task testified he helped arrest Zaire as the suspect in the burglary case. When Smith brought Zaire back to the Trenton police department for booking, he was approached by detectives Peterson and Francis, who wanted to interview Zaire about his possible involvement in Jackson’s death. Smith, who had worked in Trenton police’s burglary investigation unit, was asked to reach out to Zaire’s mother since they had “good rapport.”

Otis said he eventually got in touch with Tonyell, and he, Peterson and Francis traveled to a hotel she was staying at with her children after they received threats in the wake of Jackson’s death.

Otis said the woman signed the form and waived her right to be present at the interrogation because she was “fed up” with Zaire and could no longer control him. The detectives traveled back to police headquarters, where Zaire had been left in an interrogation room for five hours.

Francis testified he and Peterson read Zaire his Miranda rights before they began interviewing him around 5:20 p.m. Francis stressed police followed protocol and Zaire was treated properly. He said he even bought the suspect McDonald’s and left him unshackled in the interrogation room so he’d be more comfortable speaking with detectives.

Zaire was asked to tell his story.

Zaire claimed he had nothing to do with Jackson’s murder. He described a hard-luck life that included a strained relationship with his mother, who would often drink to the point of intoxication and bring several paramours around the house. He had gotten kicked out of his aunt’s house recently after he refused to turn himself into police on the burglary warrant. He was bouncing between the home of his stepfather, Ronald Cromwell, and a friend.

Zaire said he had taken to selling drugs on the streets. He was apparently making enough money to gain the attention of some local hustlers, who he said had robbed him days before Jackson’s death.

Zaire also described another incident at an Easter cookout the day before Jackson was killed. Zaire said he got into a verbal altercation with another man. That man pulled a gun and put it to Zaire’s head. Zaire dared him to pull the trigger. “If you’re gonna shoot me, shoot me.”

Zaire claimed Jackson was one of the men who de-escalated the situation. Zaire said he and Jackson exchanged words before he left the home with a group of associates. Later that night, Zaire said, someone shot up the house he was staying at.

Detectives were unmoved, calling his story “bulls***.” They said witnesses told them a different story and focused on Zaire’s actions on April 9.

They suggested Zaire went after Jackson because he was scared for his life and had to strike preemptively to avoid getting killed himself. After all, Peterson said, “Swirv is not an angel.”

The detectives did the bad cop/good cop routine to wear down Zaire from his “tough-guy” persona. Francis lectured Zaire for several minutes, acting as a fatherly figure. Zaire was mostly silent.

“You got dealt a bad hand,” Francis told Zaire, at one point placing his hand on his shoulder. “My personal belief: It was self-defense. Let me help you.”

“I wasn’t there,” Zaire said.

Francis told Zaire he couldn’t even look him in the face and deny it. Then he picked up his notepad and left the room, replaced by Peterson.

Peterson made Zaire recount his alibi. Zaire said he woke up around noon or 1 p.m. the day Jackson was killed. He called up a friend and had him pick him up. They hung out for a few hours before Zaire said he had him drop him off at his girlfriend’s house, where he stayed overnight.

But Peterson didn’t buy it and told Zaire to confess.

“Are you a ruthless thug or did you make a mistake?” he said. “You heard the expression the truth will set you free. There’s no doubt in my mind you did it. And if I can see, don’t you think that 12 people in the jury will see it? This is never going away. But you have an out. You take the out now or you’re never gonna get it again.”

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