Prison advocates believe in suspected Trenton killer’s innocence
Shaheed Brown was raised on the hardscrabble streets of Newark. In and out of the gang life and in and out of prison, he spent time in solitary confinement in the now-shuttered, high-risk gang unit of Northern State Prison in Newark.
Brown’s parents struggled with drug addiction, leaving him to fend for himself.
He has been in the system since he was a teenager, spending time at a juvenile detention center, according to an article in the Philadelphia Enquirer.
As an adult, he has numerous criminal convictions, including for aggravated assault and aggravated arson, making his attorney, Edward Heyburn, leery of putting him on the stand during his murder trial.
Opening statements are set for Wednesday after opposing attorneys finished selecting a jury Tuesday. Brown is being tried for the July 2014 shooting death of Enrico Smalley Jr., who was gunned down outside of La Guira Bar in Trenton.
For all his flaws, two prisoners’ rights advocates paint a different portrait of Brown, a man they believe is incapable of committing murder.
“He doesn’t lie to me,” said attorney Jean Ross, who along with her husband, housed Brown at their residence when he arrived in the capital city through a coming-home initiative sponsored by Greater Trenton Behavioral. He had been released from state prison in 2010. “He hasn’t told me everything in his life that he has done. But I experience him as a person who is straight with me, who is honest.”
Ross and another prisoners’ rights advocate, Bonnie Kerness, got to know Brown while working with him when he was incarcerated in Newark to help improve conditions for inmates in the gang unit.
Ross said she remembers an occasion when she had asked Brown to show up at the Hughes Justice Complex for a news conference hosted by the Juvenile Justice Commission. He came and spoke. His young son showed up afterward, running from one side of the complex into Brown’s outstretched arms.
It was an image that stuck with Ross.
“You don’t get that unless you have been present and a good father,” she said.
For sure, those are not the images conjured by murder allegations hanging over Brown’s head. He has maintained his innocence, rejecting a 45-year plea offer from prosecutors.
Ross said she has no reason to doubt Brown when he says he did not kill Smalley.
“I don’t think, frankly, that he killed this person,” she said. “There is a core in him that we want to support.”
She said she believes police may have targeted Brown because of his prior criminal record and pinned the crime on him once they discovered he was with Smalley and had walked out of the bar with him seconds before the murder.
“When something really bad happens, [the police are] under pressure,” Ross said. “Once they have a theory, they’re gonna stick with it. With that strategy, if they get it wrong, the killer is still out on the street, and I think that’s the case here.”
Kerness recently spoke to Brown on the phone from jail as he prepares for his murder trial.
She has known him about five years and interviewed him extensively about his experiences inside the gang unit of Northern State Prison for the American Friends Service Committee, a social justice group focused on ending solitary confinement in New Jersey.
Brown detailed the rampant abuse in the gang unit.
“That takes bravery even after you get out,” Kerness said. “For me, he is someone special.”
The prison abuse was also depicted in a documentary, “An Omar Broadway Film,” when an inmate smuggled in a video camera with help from a guard in order to capture footage of corrections officers’ brutality. That led to the unit being closed in 2010.
Brown was nothing short of helpful in Kerness’ quest to expose the issues at the prison.
“My knowledge of him is not one of violence,” she said. “The contact that I have with him is that he has been a mediator. He helped mediate truces. What he was charged with is not in my knowledge of him or my experience with him.”
Brown recently reconnected with Kerness, looking for someone he could depend on to intervene in a situation involving inmates in his unit at the Mercer County jail.
Kerness said inmates were involved in an altercation which resulted in negative consequences for all those housed at the corrections facility in Hopewell Township.
Kerness said she reached out to the county jail’s warden, Charles Ellis, after she spoke to Brown.
Kerness said one of her staff members also plans to be present throughout the murder trial to support Brown. She said she was shocked to find out he had been accused of murder. She believes the charges could point to institutional racism more than Brown’s guilt.
“Advocates like me depend on people like Shaheed,” Kerness said. “Any time the police can sweep the streets of young people, they do. These aren’t nice, middle-class white people with ties and suits. Life is a struggle for young African American men.”