Prosecutor at Shaheed Brown retrial: ‘This was an assassination’
Edward Heyburn thinks he got it right when he said another man killed a Ewing man outside a Trenton bar.
In his closing arguments Tuesday, the defense attorney slammed the Mercer
County Homicide Task Force, a special team of investigators formed in 2013 to combat job cutbacks, for its Descartian logic in fingering former Newark gang member Shaheed Brown for the murder of Enrico Smalley Jr. outside of La Guira Bar on July 12, 2014.
“Not everybody acts right. Not everybody does their job,” Heyburn said. “Detective [Joseph] Itri assumed he was right.”
Heyburn should have uttered a famous philosopher’s words in his closing argument — “I think therefore I am” – because the county homicide task force wasn’t the only one guilty of Descartian logic in this case.
Brown’s second trial wrapped up Tuesday, as jurors heard closing arguments before getting the case later in the day. Brown’s first trial in October 2015 ended in a hung jury.
Not parsing any words, Heyburn said detectives failed to follow up leads and speak to crucial eyewitnesses before Itri drew up a warrant for Brown two days after the murder.
One of those witnesses was Kayemma Strong, who appeared from surveillance tapes to have a perfect look at the killer. Itri played a game of “cat and mouse” but never got a statement from her.
Heyburn pounced on that, attacking police and the prosecutor for their “tragic lack of humility,” which he said was symptomatic of the criminal justice system.
Assistant Prosecutor Brian McCauley defended the state police detective, saying the only reason he had a case was because of Itri’s dogged police work tracking down people who were scared to come forward.
Those people included Smalley’s cousin, Melissa Brown, and Kenneth Crawford, a former corrections officer.
Crawford was still frightened when he testified, showing up in oversized sunglasses and putting on his best “Batman voice” to conceal his identify, the prosecutor said.
“As long as the evidence points at Shaheed Brown, they didn’t do enough,” McCauley said of investigators’ efforts.
Itri was attached to the Mercer County Homicide Task Force, a seasoned group of detectives drawn from state and city police, the sheriff’s office and municipal police departments. They focused on solving murders in the area.
Heyburn said the group’s “incredible” name made them sound formidable. But in reality, he said, they missed evidence pointing at another man, Alvie “King” Vereen, one of the men who accompanied Brown to the crime-ridden bar.
“Why wasn’t a crime-scene reconstruction done?” Heyburn said, mapping out where two of the state’s witnesses were around 1:21 a.m. and pointing to the location of shell casings, which he said were closer to Vereen.
“They had resources. Detective Itri could have gone back with the witnesses. He could have gone there with each of the witnesses. But he and Mr. McCauley were right as of July 14, 2014. They were only gonna accept the evidence that fit the information of what they already decided.”
Itri on July 14 wrote up a warrant charging Brown with Smalley’s murder, based in part on a 911 tape and a statement from Crawford, the former corrections officer who made the anonymous call.
Brown wasn’t apprehended until a month later, in August 2014.
By that time, McCauley noted, Brown had changed his appearance. He had shaved off the long dreadlocks, tucked underneath a do-rag, he was captured by surveillance cameras sporting when Smalley was gunned down.
The prosecutor pointed out that Brown was the last person seen with Smalley before they stepped off screen moments before gunshots rang out.
“This was an assassination,” he said.
McCauley dismissed the defense theory that Vereen was the real killer, saying Brown had a bulge in his pants, appeared to cock a “dark-colored object” three minutes prior to the murder and had beef with Smalley’s associates who chased him from La Guira a week prior.
Heyburn said it was implausible his client would pull out a handgun and cock it in front of everyone outside of La Guira Bar.
McCauley said the defense’s conclusion conveniently ignored that Vereen was Brown’s friend and a part of his entourage the night at the bar.
“Alvie Vereen did not do the shooting,” McCauley said. “Alvie Vereen is his buddy. He didn’t have time, the opportunity or the motive. Five seconds is not enough time to inflict the carnage inflicted on Enrico Smalley.”
Vereen and another man, Rodney Sutphin, followed Brown around like “puppy dogs,” McCauley said, referring to Brown as the “alpha male.”
Rodney Sutphin was captured by surveillance mingling with Brown and others outside the bar. Detectives spoke to him within hours of the murder but he denied being there. It wasn’t until weeks later that detectives discovered that was a lie. But they never confronted Sutphin about it, which Heyburn said was critical to solving the murder.
Sutphin was killed about three months after Smalley’s death. His murder remains unsolved.
Heyburn pointed to Sutphin’s actions prior to the murder as proof he was involved in a plot to have the Ewing man killed.
Sutphin went over and got Vereen’s attention moments after Smalley exited the bar and walked down the sidewalk with Brown, Heyburn said.
The two walked next to each other, perhaps conversing along the way. As Vereen got near where Smalley was standing, he appeared to reach into his waistband with his left hand, Heyburn said.
Vereen stepped off camera and wasn’t visible for about five seconds, which coincided with when people reacted to the shots on the soundless surveillance tapes, Heyburn said.
Vereen was “within feet, if not inches” of Smalley when he was shot, Heyburn said.
When Vereen reappeared on screen, he had his hands tucked in and zig-zagged out of camera view in the middle of North Clinton Avenue.
McCauley focused on Brown’s actions, the day Smalley was killed and afterward, and a lack of witness cooperation the authorities encountered.
The prosecutor said a 911 tape, in which Crawford admitted on the stand to making assumptions when he described the shooter as being an African American man about 6 feet tall, wearing light clothing and having dreadlocks, was the “unfiltered truth.”
The phone call was made 22 minutes after the murder. McCauley played back the 911 phone call once more for jurors.
Crawford said on the phone call, and Brown mouthed as much to his defense attorney, that he “can’t really see” the shooting. Crawford testified to as much at trial.
McCauley said Brown picked up and left his South Broad Street apartment after the murder and had a “six-week head start” on the authorities, which explained why they never recovered the 9 mm murder weapon.
McCauley said “filters” colored the case, summing up the resistance law enforcement encountered with Melissa Brown’s testimony: “When people try to tell the police stuff, they kill you.”
“How many people knew what happened?” McCauley asked. “How many people came forward? Zero. People are scared to cooperate. Joe Itri had to track them down.”
The prosecutor said Brown had no reason to be at La Guira Bar when Smalley was killed.
Brown never entered La Guira, peering into a window from the vestibule, where he knew he wouldn’t be patted down.
He lived in South Trenton and could have gone to Trenton Social or Joe’s Mill Hill Saloon if he wanted to drink. Brown showed up about 15 minutes prior to last call because he was out to get “revenge,” McCauley said, “pacing and waiting for his prey to exit the bar.”
Then the prosecutor came to the glove. Heyburn offered no explanation for why surveillance showed a black glove on his client’s right wrist.
Calling the murder brazen, McCauley suggested the glove was used to conceal fingerprints.
“You are not afraid of anyone or anything,” McCauley said. “He does it right in front of the street.”