Trenton murder trial ends in hung jury, third recently in Mercer County
Carl Batie’s family, friends and colleagues dutifully showed up to court day after day over four weeks as prosecutors laid out the case against two men suspected of killing the Mercer County corrections officer in 2012.
They must do it all over again.
Prosecutors have tried three murder trials in the last four months. Less than a half hour into their fourth day of deliberations in the murder trial of suspected killers Maurice Skillman and Hykeem Tucker, a jury announced it was deadlocked, and a judge was forced to declare a mistrial for the third time.
Judge Andrew Smithson, who presided over two of the three mistrials, polled jurors before releasing them from the courtroom. They said further deliberations would not be fruitful.
The judge lamented jurors’ indecision as an indication the criminal justice system in Mercer County is either “working better than ever or broken.”
James Scott, the assistant prosecutor who tried two of the three murder cases which ended in mistrials, said he believed this jury wanted “absolute certainty” Skillman and Tucker were responsible for Batie’s death outside the Baldassari Regency banquet hall on Nov. 11, 2012, in what the authorities said was a gang-related shooting.
Batie, an innocent bystander, was shot in the head while standing on the balcony. He and his brother, Karshawn, were at the banquet hall celebrating President Barack Obama’s re-election.
Scott admitted his case against Skillman and Tucker was circumstantial and relied on grainy video surveillance tapes that made it hard for jurors to identify the assailants.
Scott lacked DNA evidence to prove the case, but the judge credited him for putting on what he described as a masterful closing argument, the best the judge heard in more than two decades sitting in a courtroom.
It still was not enough for prosecutors.
Just as is the case with Isiah Greene and former Newark gang member Shaheed Brown, whose cases also ended in mistrials within two weeks of each other in October, prosecutors must retry Skillman and Tucker.
Scott said he was prepared to retry the men as soon as possible but a date was not set.
It gives Scott time to reflect, but he left the courtroom Friday feeling secure in the way he presented the case to jurors.
Nicole Carlo, Skillman’s attorney, said she, like Scott, was left “reading the tea leaves” about why the jury didn’t reach a verdict.
Christopher Campbell, Tucker’s attorney, said: “I wouldn’t be taking it to trial unless I thought I had a good chance of convincing jurors he was not guilty.”
Rumors swirled around the courthouse that 11 of 12 jurors believed Skillman and Tucker were guilty, but a lone holdout was unswayed despite rancorous discussions that led the judge to dismiss jurors 90 minutes early Thursday for them to “recharge their batteries.”
Reporters were not given an opportunity to interview jurors after sheriff’s officers deliberately guided the hung jury away from reporters and the public, possibly on orders of Smithson, in an unprecedented maneuver that surprised legal experts who opined what happened was illegal.
“Whatever was done, I suspect, was done to deny you access to jurors, not to protect them from some perceived threat in the community,” said Jack Furlong, a criminal defense attorney who practices in Trenton.
He said sheriff’s officer erred when they forced a Trentonian reporter to conduct interviews outside of the courthouse, which is open to the public.
“That’s an outrage,” Furlong said. “The sheriffs have no lawful authority to order you out of courthouse. Less than zero.”
A spokesman for the Mercer County Sheriff’s Office acknowledged in a statement reporters are allowed to conduct interviews inside the courthouse. But spokesman Ernie Cerino said sheriff’s officers can change the policy “on a case-by-case basis.”
“This is routine for high-profile cases and such was the case [Friday],” he said.
Jurors were led to an awaiting jury bus stationed in a restricted portion of the courthouse parking area where The Trentonian was not allowed.
Chief Mercer County Sheriff’s Officer Christopher Kenyon said the unprecedented measure was put in place because of “security concerns.”
Kenyon would not say whether threats were made against jurors, and Scott, the prosecutor, said he was unaware of any threats made against jurors.
Kenyon conceded the bus is normally parked at the front of the courthouse on South Warren Street. This time the bus was parked around back, in a gated portion outside of the courthouse.
Kenyon said it “didn’t matter” when he was asked if jurors were steered away from the public at Smithson’s direction.
Smithson declined to comment.
“My friend, I can’t talk to you,” he said.
A judiciary spokesman also declined to comment.
The decision to intentionally segregate jurors from the public and not give them an opportunity to accept or decline interviews with The Trentonian was onerous because the public was left wondering what factored into their indecision. It also did little to quell rampant speculation that a single juror’s opinion held up a verdict.
The jury appeared deadlocked before it entered its fourth day of deliberations, passing an odd note to Smithson on Thursday morning asking if it could consider alternative theories.
The judge told jurors they should constrain deliberations to assessing the evidence presented at the four-week trial, which included testimony from 17 state witnesses and a single surveillance expert put on the stand by defense attorneys.
Smithson told jurors “hypothecations” shouldn’t play a role in their decision. He brought jurors into the courtroom Friday morning around 9:30 a.m. and told them they were “judges” of the facts not “partisans.”
Prosecutors’ case was straight forward. They said 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 to who they say were more likely suspects, alleged Bloods gang member Shaquel Rock and his associates. Rock had threatened a police officer earlier in the night after he was not allowed into the club.
Trenton Police Detective Scott Peterson testified he identified Skillman as the shooter and Tucker as his accomplice after pouring over more than 30 hours of surveillance footage, which the jury asked to re-watch numerous times.
For prosecutors, in all three cases, it’s back to the drawing board. They will have to figure out how to present the cases better, without having the benefit of input from past panels.
Smithson is partly to blame for that since this appears to be the second time he has interfered with the press’ ability to interview jurors.
At Brown’s trial, which also ended in a hung jury, Smithson chastised The Trentonian as an “irresponsible tabloid” and implied a reporter violated a court order by obtaining a recording of a private conversation the judge had with a juror.
The recording was unsealed and obtained lawfully by The Trentonian. That didn’t stop Smithson from singling out a reporter in the courtroom and warning jurors, “Be careful what you say.”
Legal experts said the judge’s behavior was unethical and infringed on the press’ rights to act as a watchdog of government.
In the case of jurors in Skillman and Tucker’s trial, Furlong said the judge may have leeway to protect identities of jurors if they told them they did not want to be interviewed.
“Jurors are like a protected class,” he said. “The press is entitled to attempt to speak to them upon their discharge of service. What happened was not interest of the Fifth Estate and the First Amendment.”