Trenton woman defends her dead grandson against murder accusation

Rodney Sutphin

Rodney Sutphin

The grandmother of now-deceased Rodney Sutphin has a message for a defense attorney who has accused her grandson of ordering the murder of Enrico Smalley Jr.

“A dead man can’t speak,” Deborah Ellis, who raised brothers Rodney and Raesean Supthin at her home on Grand Street, said from inside a cavernous conference room at The Trentonian’s office. “But I’ll be damned if I’m going to let [Edward Heyburn] or the prosecutor rip my grandkids who I love very much with my heart. It’s bull–t. And they can stop it right now. Please, leave Rodney alone. Let him rest. If you find Enrico’s killer, then you’ll find Rodney’s killer.”

Ellis spoke out Tuesday in order to address statements Assistant Prosecutor Brian McCauley and defense attorney Heyburn made about her grandsons.

Shaheed Brown, 30, has been arrested and charged with killing Smalley outside of crime-riddled La Guira Bar in July 2014.

Heyburn’s theory that Rodney Sutphin orchestrated Smalley’s murder is part of a third-party guilt defense he plans to raise at his client’s trial in October. Ellis said the theory is implausible for numerous reasons.

For starters, she said, her grandchildren did not know Smalley and were never sought out as suspects by police.

“It’s impossible,” she said. “When that boy ’Rico got killed, [the police] came to my house. The police have a tape. They have Raesean on the tape. They have Rodney on the tape. They asked for Raesean. They didn’t question my grandson, Rodney. And they get paid for that. Why would you walk past somebody who put out a hit?”

Like everyone, Ellis said her grandsons had a right to be at the bar the night Smalley was gunned down. Raesean Sutphin, 20, was not of legal drinking age at the time of Smalley’s murder.

“They were there, but they wasn’t together,” Ellis said. “It’s a public bar. They weren’t the only ones at the bar. A lot of people was at the bar.”

Ellis does not pretend to know whether Rodney Sutphin’s murder is related to the slaying of Smalley.

“That’s up for the police to find out,” she said.

The 22-year-old Sutphin was found dead in October, three months after Smalley’s death. No arrests have been made and the murder remains unsolved.

Meanwhile, Brown’s trial is set for Oct. 5, and the Sutphins figure to be a part of the proceedings, as witnesses or as people implicated by Heyburn.

Heyburn has alleged Smalley was gunned down by a man known only as “King,” still at large, on orders of Rodney Sutphin, claiming it was payback for a murder Smalley allegedly committed.

In surveillance footage obtained by The Trentonian, Rodney Sutphin is seen fading back as King appears to reach for something tucked in his waistband seconds before Smalley was shot. The footage is silent but people are seen scattering in all directions as shots ring out. Rodney Sutphin takes off running away from the shots.

“He was scared to death,” Ellis said.

Heyburn went public with the allegations at a pretrial hearing last week, basing his assertion on a statement he contends one of Smalley’s friends made to former Mercer County Detective Joseph Itri, implicating Smalley in a separate homicide.

The man, John “Buck” Meyers, denied in an interview with The Trentonian accusing Smalley of murder and said Heyburn is motivated by getting his client off a murder rap.

“[Heyburn] is getting paid to represent his client,” Meyers said last week. “He’s going to say whatever he’s got to say to get his client free. It’s bull–t. That’s what I think.”

Ellis said her grandsons are easy targets.

Surveillance showed they were at the bar that night; their uncle is the oft-arrested Lawrence Sutphin, who is incarcerated on attempted murder charges; Raesean Sutphin also faces attempted murder charges stemming from a shooting that injured two people last October; and Rodney Sutphin is dead and can’t defend himself against the accusations.

“I’m taking it very hard for somebody to keep slandering his name,” Ellis said. “Don’t slander my grandkids name. Point blank. Don’t do that. Go for someone else. As far as their last name, if they had a right to choose someone else’s last name, they could have did that. What the other Sutphin family did, do not take it to hold my grandkids responsible.”

Ellis said her grandson was not a leader and did not have the capacity to order a murder. Rodney Sutphin had difficulty living by himself and performing chores.

“How can he order a murder and I was washing his clothes,” she said. “His IQ was not that strong. I did everything for him. And I buried him. I buried my grandson, but I’m not gonna allow this attorney to try to drag him in the dirt. Heyburn needs to piss somewhere else.”

Rodney Sutphin’s grandmother believes he suffered from an untreated case of obsessive-compulsive disorder as he often showered for hours, scrubbing every inch of his body, including behind his earlobes, repeatedly.

“I knew I would have to use the bathroom before he goes in,” Ellis said. “We had to respect that. There’s nothing you can do for him. It was like a disease. Now he can’t take a shower because he’s dead.”

Raesean Sutphin is a potential witness in Brown’s murder trial, although McCauley said there is no negotiated plea deal that would require him to testify against Brown.

Ellis also took issue with McCauley’s jab at Raesean Sutphin, when he claimed he is no stranger to the system.

“He’s a Sutphin,” McCauley said, according to a recording of last week’s hearing. “Of course, he’s in the system.”

Ellis said she regularly speaks to Raesean Sutphin, who is still behind bars awaiting the resolution of his attempted murder case.

“He’s innocent until proven guilty,” she said. “The case he’s held on has nothing to do with what they’re trying to put him into. He’s in a whole different thing. We’re not going to talk about his case. I’m here to clear my grandson’s name. Because a dead man can’t talk to you.”

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