Circus atmosphere grips opening day of high-profile murder trial
TRENTON >> The opening phase of the Shaheed Brown murder trial played out as if attorneys were filming a sequel to the popular film “My Cousin Vinny.”
The movie traced the evolution of a bombastically incompetent attorney, Vinnie Gambini, played by actor Joe Pesci. Gambinni’s goal was to get his cousin and a friend off a murder rap in rural Alabama.
Some of the scenes in which the judge chastised Gambini for ineptitude looked like they were filmed in Mercer County. But in Gambini’s place stood Edward Heyburn, the defense attorney for suspected killer Shaheed Brown, who is being tried for the July 12, 2014 murder of Enrico Smalley Jr. outside of a crime-ridden bar in Trenton.
Judge Andrew Smithson waited until he was out of the presence of the jury before ripping into Heyburn on Wednesday.
“Your opening statement was horrendous,” the retired judge told Heyburn. “I don’t know how many cases you’ve tried in your lifetime, but there’s a lot to learn.”
The harsh criticism came at the end of a day marked by clashes between Heyburn and the judge. Smithson twice interrupted Heyburn during his opening argument for making what the judge said were improper statements to jurors.
Heyburn’s opening argument was expected to take on an accusatorial tone as he is expected to put on a third-party guilt defense implicating a dead man for ordering Smalley’s murder.
But it was subdued, especially after the judge instructed the defense attorney to pipe down.
Heyburn pointed to “inconvenient facts” he said investigators ignored while looking into Smalley’s murder. He said the crime was pinned on Brown because the state “intentionally avoided facts, intentionally avoided witnesses … so they could come to a conclusion” about the convicted felon.
“They filed the charges then they did the investigation,” Heyburn said.
Assistant Prosecutor Brian McCauley admitted the case against Brown is circumstantial.
“There is no smoking gun,” he said. “There’s no gun at all.”
Investigators did not recover the 9 mm luger used to kill Smalley. They did, however, find several spent shell casings outside the bar. Five had the manufacturer’s head stamp Tulammo. Another was from Winchester, leading Brown’s grandmother, Dorothy Williams, to conclude there must have been two shooters.
She said she believes her grandson was not involved.
“I know my grandson didn’t kill nobody,” she told The Trentonian. “My grandson was just getting ready to go to the Golden Gloves. Shaheed had just begun to get his success, his future in life. He loved boxing. I really don’t think he would have messed his career. He would have used his hands. His hands were weapons.
Williams said she lost a daughter and feels the pain of Smalley’s family, offering her condolences.
But McCauley said in his opening statement that doesn’t change the facts.
“The person [Smalley] was walking with is the person who murdered him,” said McCauley, alluding to surveillance footage that captures the two men together outside La Guira Bar, on the corner of Poplar Street and North Clinton Avenue.
Few people have not seen the video after it was released to The Trentonian by Heyburn, who held it out as proof of his client’s innocence. He said it depicted another man, identified only as “King,” reaching for something tucked in his waistband shortly before shot ring out.
King was finally identified in court as a man named Alvie Vereen. Not much is known about him, and it remains to be seen how much of a presence he will have in the trial.
Most of the opening-day action centered on testimony from two witnesses, city resident Melissa Brown and Kenneth Crawford, a retired corrections officer at Trenton state prison.
They said they were outside the bar when Smalley was shot but neither got a good look at the shooter.
Brown said she was parked in her green Mazda outside of Ann’s Place, a bar across the street from where Smalley gunned down, waiting for friends.
By a stroke of bad luck, Brown found out later the man who was gunned down was her relative.
Still, she didn’t cooperate with investigators and was tracked down by detectives months later for prosecutors to secure a statement. She said she was scared.
“They was standing right in front of each other,” she said of the gunman and Smalley. “I saw fire come out of the gun.”
Heyburn tried introducing footage on cross examination he said would show Melissa Brown is lying. He claimed the video shows she was inside Ann’s Place at the time of the shooting and peeked out of a window when she heard gunfire.
The judge did not allow Brown to view the video, saying she could not authenticate it, leading to another confrontation between the attorney and judge.
Crawford was the last of five witnesses called to the stand Wednesday. He was parked in his Ford SUV across from La Guira when gunfire erupted, prompting him to get the hell outta of dodge.
He described seeing the body jerk of a man dressed in light clothing and dreadlocks. McCauley pointed out in his opening Brown was dressed in light clothing and had dreadlocks.
Crawford thought the individual was reacting to the gun but couldn’t say whether the person was being hit by bullets or doing the shooting.
“I could see the body do a jump motion, a little jerk motion,” he said. “I assume they were reacting to the gunshots.”
Crawford said he saw two individuals he believed were involved jogging away from the bar.
Crawford left the area and went to a 7-Eleven, where he smoked a cigarette to calm his nerves. He anonymously phoned emergency dispatchers from a payphone and relayed what he knew.
Investigators later tracked him down.
“I felt obligated to do something,” Crawford said.