Hung juries stand out among Mercer County criminal cases in 2015

Mercer County had two hung juries in back-to-back murder trials in two weeks, a vexing problem for prosecutors that legal experts said could point to flaws in the cases, flaws in the way their cases were presented or flaws in jurors.

Legal experts wrangled over an alphabet soup of possibilities when they were contacted by The Trentonian, which focused on the hung juries as part for its end-of-the-year story detailing the county’s most riveting criminal cases.

But the experts said without more information, and input from jurors who deliberated the gang murder cases of Shaheed Brown and Isiah Greene, it’s hard to put a finger on anything specific.

“I guess you call it unusual,” said Bennett Gershman, a law professor at Pace University and a former Manhattan prosecutor. “But I don’t know if you can make any rational conclusions about the jury pool or whether they are predisposed not to convict based on those two cases.

“You really never know what went on in the jury room. It’s one of those fascinating and vexing phenomena in criminal justice. The jury does what they want to do and their verdict can’t be impeached.”

Looking at demographics in Mercer County could untangle part of the mystery, legal experts said.

Mercer County, with an estimated 371,000 residents, plucks jurors from all municipalities including Trenton, Hamilton, Princeton and other places.

More than half of 84,000 people who live in Trenton are black, according to the latest numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau, contrasting with Princeton, where 72 percent of the more than 30,000 residents are white.

“Generally, in places in where you have large urban populations, there is a little more skepticism or distrust of the government or the police that creates a higher burden for the government,” said J.C. Lore, a law professor at Rutgers University. “That could be something. But the holdout could have been from Princeton.”

Legal experts said interviews with jurors are critical when figuring out reasons that resulted in the hung juries. But in both cases, The Trentonian was unable to interview any of the 24 jurors.

In Greene’s case, jurors were deliberately steered away from a Trentonian reporter. In Brown’s case, Judge Andrew Smithson poisoned any chance of jurors interviewing when he blasted a reporter for publishing a story about a secret conversation he had with juror, Mark Nalbone, based off a recording it obtained lawfully.

The judge accused The Trentonian of violating a nonexistent court order not to publish the juror’s name.

Gershman said the judge’s comments were “heavy-handed” and did not benefit prosecutors or defense attorneys who could have learned what juries thought about the way they presented their cases based off interviews with the media.

The dynamics, while circumstantial in some respects, were different in each case. No DNA evidence linked Brown, a former Newark gang member, to the murder of Enrico Smalley Jr. outside of crime-riddled La Guira Bar.

The case was based on witness testimony and a grainy surveillance video depicting Brown, wearing a black glove on his hand, and Smalley together moments before shots rang out.

Assistant Prosecutor Brian McCauley was frustrated with the jury’s indecision, saying jurors “didn’t see the same trial I did because if they did he would be convicted right now. I cannot understand how they reached any other conclusion.”

The outcome in Greene’s case was also hard to fathom for Assistant Prosecutor James Scott, who believed critical DNA evidence linked Greene to the murder of high-ranking Bloods gang member Quaadir “Ace” Gurley.

Greene’s blood was found at the housing project where Gurley was shot, and a scientist testified the match to Greene’s DNA profile was astronomical. Greene also reported being shot at another location within minutes of Gurley being shot.

Prosecutors believed Greene shot himself in the foot, and hobbled away like a wounded deer, after gunning down Gurley. Greene took the stand and said he went to the housing project to pick up a friend when he was injured in crossfire. He contended he saw the shooter flee.

A woman who lived next to Gurley testified she saw a dark-skinned black man in all white clothing fleeing the housing project shortly after shots rang out.

But she also opened the door for Greene’s defense attorney, Mark Fury, who is no stranger to hung juries. He was the attorney for Jose “Boom Bat” Negrete, the Latin Kings leader who was convicted in 2015 at a fourth trial of ordering the murder of gang “queen” Jeri Lynn Dotson and the near-strangulation of gang turncoat Alex Ruiz.

Negrete’s first trial ended in a hung jury.

On cross examination in Greene’s trial, Fury got the woman to admit she considered Greene to have a fairer complexion than the shooter.

Gershman said if he had tried the cases, he would re-examine every facet of them to see if it the way they were presented impacted jurors’ decision-making.

“It’s complicated,” he said. “Jurors are human beings. The jury process in enigmatic. We don’t know how juries really decide cases. It’s a guessing game.”

Lore said there is no “golden rule” for jury selection.

“It’s a lot of chance,” he said. “You’re not trying to select jurors so much as trying to deselect jurors who worry you.”

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