Murder trial still not set, patience tested for family of slain son of Trenton cop Luddie Austin
Raheem Currie walked into the second floor of the Mercer County criminal courthouse Wednesday sporting a crisp black suit. He carried in his right hand a matching briefcase.
It was the attire of a business executive not of a man on bail accused of murder. Looks can be deceiving, said retired Trenton cop Luddie Austin.
Nestling down next to his mother outside Courtroom 2C, Currie sat stone-faced on a bench, staring straight ahead of him. Twenty-five feet to his left sat Luddie Austin, the father of 18-year-old James Austin.
Currie is one of two men charged with murder in James Austin’s death. The shooter, Robert Bartley, has accepted a 25-year plea offer for aggravated manslaughter and will testify against Currie at trial, whenever that is.
Currie is accused of calling Bartley and driving him over to James Austin’s home to settle his “ongoing beef.”
An awkward silence overtook the bowels of the courthouse before Currie’s attorney, Jack Furlong, entered and broke it, remarking on his client’s polished look.
It didn’t sit well with Luddie Austin.
“The defendant’s attorney can walk in and joke about how his client looks good in a suit,” Austin said. “The last time I seen my son in a suit, I had to bury him.”
Judge Robert Billmeier held a pretrial conference Wednesday, but he did not set the matter down for trial because of the impending retirement of Assistant Prosecutor Lewis Korngut.
Assistant Prosecutor James Scott is taking over the case. But he was not present for the pretrial conference.
Billmeier reluctantly went ahead with the pretrial conference in Scott’s absence after opposing attorneys agreed Korngut could stand in for Scott.
Earlier, Korngut told the family Scott would handle the pretrial conference and he would only be standing in attendance. He assured the Austin family that Scott would treat the case with as much care as he has.
Moments before the start of the proceeding, Korngut appeared frustrated, tossing his cell phone on the prosecutor’s table. He was overheard telling a sheriff’s officer, “It’s his trial; it’s not my trial.” It was unclear if he was angered Scott had not shown up.
Upon entering the courtroom, Billmeier summoned attorneys to sidebar while one of his staff members passed out what appeared to be a prospective list of jury questions. Currie was sitting in the defendant’s chair while this took place.
Then Billmeier took the bench.
“Why don’t we bring out the defendant,” Billmeier said to his sheriff’s detail.
Austin’s family did not react, sitting blankly in the second row of benches in the courtroom gallery. It was an awkward moment that seemed to confirm Luddie Austin’s criticism that Currie should not be freely walking the streets while he is charged with murder.
“You have a judge who refuses to set a bail in the appropriate guidelines,” Austin said in an Oct. 22 interview with The Trentonian.
Luddie Austin could only shrug his shoulders afterward.
“It’s not our family’s fault the jail is overcrowded and people are not afraid to commit crime,” he said. “They know they’re gonna walk the streets for three, four, five years before anything happens to them.”
All James Austin’s relatives want is justice, which they say has been delayed. Sometimes the homicidal thought of street justice passes through Luddie Austin’s mind. It’s proof of his humanity. And proof that under the right circumstances, those who for decades enforced the law can just as easily be pushed to break it.
“I can’t tell you the things I want to do to him,” Luddie Austin said before departing the courthouse. “But I can’t. I gotta live for my family.”