Attorneys in Tracy Crews murder trial expected to implicate the victim’s wife as clients’ defense

Defense attorneys in the Tracy Crews murder trial are expected to raise a third-party guilt defense, implicating the wife of a Trenton gangster in his September 2008 murder.

The defense is based on expected witness testimony of Pennsylvania inmate Maria Cappelli.

Cappelli, an inmate at Muncy state prison, told a corrections officer Sheena Robinson-Crews, the victim’s widow, admitted setting up her husband’s murder.

Arrangements have been made for Cappelli, who is still incarcerated in Pennsylvania, to testify by video since she cannot appear in court.

Defense attorneys couldn’t subpoena her earlier because they only recently became aware of a two-page document, known as the Muncy report, that contains details about Robinson-Crews’ alleged plot to have her husband killed because he was physically and emotionally abusive.

Many of those details came out during Robinson-Crews’ cross-examination earlier this week, when she denied handing keys to the killers and giving them a time the couple would arrive at their Whittaker Avenue residence on Sept. 12, 2008.

Legal observers said third-party guilt defense is not predicated on whether the defense can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Robinson-Crews conspired in her husband’s murder, but rather that police didn’t thoroughly investigate her as a possible suspect.

Defense attorney Jack Furlong, who is not involved in the murder trial but has casually observed it, said third-party guilt defense is an “alibi by inference.”

“They [the defendants] can point the finger at someone else other than not pointing the finger at them,” he said. “‘It wasn’t me because it was someone else.’”

But legal observers note there are inherent risks and limitations about raising the defense, saying it is seldom used because it effectively switches the burden of proof from the state to the defense.

The seminal case on third-party guilt is Holmes v. South Carolina, a 2006 U.S. Supreme Court decision which vacated the rape and murder conviction of Bobby Lee Holmes.

Holmes was not allowed to present a third-party guilt defense because a trial court ruled the state’s forensic evidence was overwhelming and the defendant’s evidence was barred by the state Supreme Court because it merely “casts a bare suspicion upon another.”

Furlong said the threshold for a third-party guilt defense in New Jersey is relatively low. He said defense attorneys must demonstrate they have “colorable claim, a good-faith claim” that Robinson-Crews was behind her husband’s murder.

In other words, Furlong said, “They’re not making it up out of a whole cloth.”

In this case, defense attorneys have a witness, Cappelli, who is willing to testify that Robinson-Crews confessed to her.

Cappelli was housed with Robinson-Crews at the same state prison Robinson-Crews was sent to after she was convicted of a drug offense, following her arrest by local and federal authorities in 2009 – months after he husband’s death — for selling heroin in Morrisville, Pa.

Robinson-Crews was released last month following a six-year sentence.

The defense also has testimony from police officers who said they overheard Robinson-Crews speaking to someone they believed was the killer hours after her husband was fatally shot.

During those conversations, Robinson-Crews reportedly told the killer, “You didn’t have to shoot him. You got what you came for. You didn’t have to shoot him.” She was also overheard saying, “Those boys didn’t have to shoot him.”

Defense attorneys said it’s “ironic” the fate of their clients could hinge on Cappelli’s testimony since the state is relying on testimony from two jailhouse informants, Isaiah Franklin and Terrell Black, who said Nigel Joseph Dawson confessed to shooting Crews in the neck after Crews recognized his voice during a botched robbery.

Black testified Friday co-defendant William Brown, whose nickname on the streets is “Paperboy,” admitted setting up the robbery. Brown was Crews’ best friend and the best man at his wedding, but allegedly betrayed Crews over $40,000.

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