Trenton murder trial ends for the week on contentious note
The streets of Trenton probably know who killed Enrico Smalley Jr.
State Police Detective Joseph Itri spent three days on the witness stand saying the evidence from his investigation pointed squarely at former Newark gang member Shaheed Brown, a man with a violent past who was the last person with the Ewing man moments before he was gunned down July 12, 2014, outside La Guira Bar.
But as criminal trials prove, nothing is straightforward, especially when defense attorney Edward Heyburn is involved. His approach, implicating another man, Alvie “King” Vereen, has not sat well with Smalley’s family.
They’ve been critical of the defense attorney’s “slippery” tactics. Heyburn, stung by the “slippery” comment, asked a judge to order Smalley’s family to refrain from speaking with reporters.
It was the latest wrinkle on a day when one of the jurors, an African-American man, was dismissed from the panel because of an apparent work conflict.
The jury, following a grueling week of testimony which tried the patience of everyone, will not return until Monday.
That didn’t stop Heyburn from capping the week with one final exclamation point, complaining that it was not fair for Smalley’s family to criticize him publicly because he cannot not defend himself since a gag order was put in place by Judge Andrew Smithson.
In the past, Smithson has been critical of The Trentonian, referring to it at Brown’s first trial as an “irresponsible tabloid” when it published a story including a juror’s name. He has also been accused of having a personal feud with the newspaper after it was critical of him for expelling the public from his courtroom on two occasions to hold star-chamber proceedings.
But the judge, who may have been tickled when presented with another opportunity to silence his biggest critic, referred only obliquely to a reporter’s “juvenile” tweets and said he could not and would not interfere with Smalley’s relatives ability to speak freely with the press.
Michelle Jones, Smalley’s godmother, told The Trentonian she felt Heyburn was out of line for asking for the judge to censor the family, especially after they lost a loved one.
“He really doesn’t care,” she said. “It’s like he wants to put Enrico on trial. He’s doing things that shouldn’t be done. He’s saying things that shouldn’t be said.”
The judge, however, has closely controlled what the attorneys say, in court and out of it.
Smithson gagged attorneys after Heyburn, thrusting himself in the reflected racialized halo of Johnnie Cochran, portrayed Itri as a regular Mark Fuhrman, the disgraced former detective for the Los Angeles Police Department, in an interview with The Trentonian following the first day of jury selection.
Fuhrman perjured himself by testifying in famed football star O.J. Simpson’s 1995 murder trial that he never used racial epithets to describe African-Americans. His credibility was dashed when recorded conversations he had with an aspiring screenwriter surfaced showing he had repeatedly used the N-word.
The racial allegations against Itri, equating a sagging pants comment he made at the first trial with Fuhrman’s insidious remarks, touched a nerve with Assistant Prosecutor Brian McCauley.
He surmised the detective, who worked tirelessly trying to solve the death of Smalley, a 20-year-old black man from Ewing, was being dragged through the mud in the newspaper for the public to devour.
Heyburn has been unapologetic about his tactics, concerned with seeing to it that a man he says is innocent is not locked up for the rest of his life.
Perhaps looking to outdo himself yet again, Heyburn ratcheted up the histrionics Thursday, when he delved into questions about text and Facebook messages on Smalley’s phone.
Investigators obtained a warrant to scour the phone, looking for exchanges that might lead to whoever killed Smalley.
Heyburn attempted to question Itri about two pages of messages. But the jury heard few specifics of the phone conversations after McCauley raised an objection, leading to an eight-minute sidebar between the attorneys and the judge.
Smalley’s conversations were critical in helping Heyburn’s third-party guilt defense, and became clearer after The Trentonian obtained a recording of several sidebar conversations.
The recordings showed that Heyburn believed Smalley may have been feuding with another individual, possibly over money, a year before he was shot and killed.
Heyburn read from the slang-filled Facebook messages at sidebar before he was interrupted by the judge.
“Bro, I know you told me to chill,” the message said. “But I couldn’t control myself. Shaking my head (SMH).”
“Let me just read it,” the judge said, after McCauley questioned whether the acronym SMH really meant “Shaking my head.”
Heyburn also referenced messages Smalley allegedly exchanged with someone about “an extension,” which the defense attorney surmised was an extended clip to a high-capacity weapon.
“This is now a situation where a defense attorney is testifying what slang means,” McCauley said.
Heyburn said there was also “apparently a conversation, or at least a message, to Mr. Smalley that he either lost or didn’t properly take care of somebody else’s money, and the person was upset with him and he wants Rico to straighten it out.”
The judge said, “We’re getting into a black hole in terms of the timing, the relevancy, in terms of what it means.”
After the sidebar was over, Heyburn asked Itri vaguely about the messages and whether he investigated claims made in the messages, which were not detailed for the jury.
The day before, Heyburn also tried to get in front of the jury unsubstantiated claims made by a man named John “Buck” Meyers. Meyers was at the bar when Smalley was shot but did not see it happen.
During another sidebar Wednesday, Heyburn discussed Meyers’ interview with Itri. Meyers told the detective he heard Smalley killed someone in the past, Heyburn said, according to the recording.
Meyers also relayed to the detective a phone call he received from a woman who has never been identified at trial, Heyburn said.
The woman, Heyburn said, told Meyers that she was “out at a block party and there’s another guy who fits Alvie Vereen’s description. She overhears the person who meets the description say, ‘I don’t give a f– who hears it. I killed him. I’m gonna put sheets out for all of them.’ Something to that effect. That lead was never followed up on.”
McCauley called the woman’s claims “hearsay upon hearsay upon hearsay” and said they had no place in the courtroom.
Heyburn was limited to asking Itri whether he received information about whether “other people shot and killed Enrico Smalley.”
The detective’s response for jurors was: “No. Nothing other than word in the street, possibilities. All of those also included Mr. Brown. No one who saw it or heard it or anything no one with direct knowledge ever said anything other than him.”