Odd question highlights jury deliberations in Batie murder trial
“Making a Murderer,” anyone?
The hit Netflix series that spawned a legion of Internet sleuths may be encroaching upon the thinking of a Mercer County jury, which appears divided about whether two men are guilty of killing Mercer County corrections officer Carl Batie in 2012.
Judge Andrew Smithson met privately with one of the jurors Thursday afternoon, ramping up speculation outside the courtroom that there is animosity between two jurors about whether Maurice Skillman and Hykeem Tucker are responsible for killing Mercer County corrections officer Carl Batie outside of the Baldassari Regeny banquet hall on Nov. 11, 2012.
The 12-member panel enters its fourth day of deliberations Friday after pouring over the evidence most of Thursday. Smithson sent jurors home about 90 minutes early, fearful they were exhausted after protracted and rancorous discussions throughout the day.
Jurors have been sealed off from the public during deliberations, but have repeatedly emerged from the jury chambers with a whole host of questions. Some of them have been speculative and jarring, grabbing the attention of prosecutors and defense attorneys.
The biggest shocker came Thursday morning, when the jury foreman passed an odd note to Smithson, who admitted he was “thrown for a loop.”
The note said: “Can we consider alternative theories?”
Theories prosecutors and defense attorneys put in the case were apparently not enough for the curious dozen.
Prosecutors case was pretty straight forward. Skillman used a TEC-9 to spray a crowd of party-goers who stood on a packed banquet hall while Tucker acted as a lookout. The defense pointed who they say was a more likely suspect, a man who had threatened a police officer earlier in the night after he was not allowed into the club.
Nicole Carlo, Skillman’s attorney, said she wondered if the question had anything to do with binge-worthy podcasts and television shows like “Serial” and “Making a Murder,” which traced the steps of convicted killers Adnan Syed in Baltimore and Steven Avery in Manitowoc County, Wisc.
She said she has faith that Mercer County jurors will not veer dangerously off course like some of the crazed Internet sleuths that have obsessed about Syed’s and Avery’s cases.
Jurors were sternly warned by Smithson to constrain their thoughts and deliberations to assessing the evidence presented over the four-week trial, which included testimony from 17 witnesses.
“Fanciful hypothecations play no role” Smithson told jurors of their deliberations. “Keep it real. This is the real world.”
Carlo said she believes the “alternative theories” note was telling.
“If you have an alternative theory, to me that means you don’t think the state proved its case,” she said.
Christopher Campbell, Tucker’s attorney, said he didn’t know what to make of the note — one of the “millions of questions jurors have had” over the last four days.
Some of the confusion may stem from the mountains of evidence prosecutors put before jurors.
The judge criticized assistant prosecutors James Scott and Heather Hadley for not putting on evidence that linked Skillman or Tucker to Batie’s murder.
Scott defended the practice, saying he needed to assure jurors police did a thorough investigation and to tactically guard against defense attorneys arguing the authorities rushed to judgement about their clients.
The case boils down to identity, and whether jurors buy the word of Trenton Police Detective Scott Peterson or want to assess independently whether they believe it is Skillman and Tucker on the tapes.
Peterson was unequivocal when he took the stand, telling jurors he identified Skillman as the shooter and Tucker as his accomplice after reviewing more than 30 hours of footage downloaded from the banquet hall’s surveillance system.
Peterson referred to Skillman and Tucker, respectively, as “Tall Guy” and “Varsity Jacket” throughout the trial, referring to their height and clothing.
Defense attorneys contend that police misidentified their clients as the killers, and put on a third-party guilt defense blaming an alleged Bloods gang member, Shaquel Rock, or his associates, for killing Batie.
Rock threatened to shoot up the banquet hall after he was denied entrance the club earlier in the night.
Defense attorneys also pointed to a varsity jacket and gray and blue hooded sweatshirts that were found by investigators inside a champagne-colored vehicle belonging to Rock’s cousin, Edgar Williams.
Peterson testified he eliminated Rock as a suspect because he didn’t fit a physical description of the shooter. Rock was shorter and wore a white sweater whereas the shooter was described as taller and wearing a dark-colored sweater.
The jury resumes deliberations Friday.