Trenton detective tells tale of the tapes in Batie murder retrial
Veteran city police detective Scott Peterson believes he has a keen eye for criminals.
But will jurors in the second murder trial of two men suspected of killing off-duty Mercer County corrections officer Carl Batie see what the Trenton Police detective sees on surveillance tapes?
Peterson, the husky homicide investigator, remarked with an air of exactitude during hours of testimony Wednesday that he knows Maurice Skillman and Hykeem Tucker were behind the murder of Batie.
Peterson’s convictions on the stand were steeled from reviewing numerous camera angles that showed the exterior and interior of the Baldassari Regency banquet hall in the early-morning hours of Nov. 11, 2012.
“I continued to watch the video, hours and hours,” he said, noting how his attention was drawn to the man wearing the distinctive varsity jacket.
The surveillance tapes are the cornerstone of prosecutors’ case against the two suspected killers.
Relevant portions of the tapes were culled from more than 50 hours of footage, then shown to jurors on an overhead projector screen.
The gritty images were often fleeting, jurors and those in the courtroom gallery having to strain their eyes and reach for the Visine after a long day of testimony.
Even Peterson, with his trained eyes, at times had a hard time gazing from the witness stand. But he’s has seen these videos for so long, they are almost a part of him.
He said the “Tall Guy” who appeared on the tapes was none other than suspected shooter Maurice Skillman, Tucker, the alleged lookout, “Varsity Jacket.”
Defense attorneys have portrayed the tapes as black-and-white footage that does not clearly show the shooting, let alone whether their clients’ alleged involvement.
Partly for that reason, the men are on trial a second time, in what has turned into a Gordian knot of a murder case for prosecutors. As it goes, there is no motive and no murder weapon.
On some level, the case rises and falls with the tapes and with the word of Peterson, a towering man with jagged salt-and-pepper hair and a paunch that is on par with most middle-aged men.
Dressed in a dark suit and a neatly tied tie, Peterson put his best foot forward for jurors. But they are really being asked to rely on his eyes.
Peterson told the panel how he reached out to NFL Films and a law enforcement consultant group to see if they could enhance surveillance to draw out his suspects more.
Guiding jurors through the tapes, Peterson focused in on “Tall Guy” and “Varsity Jacket” because of their give-away clothes, mannerisms and actions leading up to the murder.
He said he traced their steps – from the moment they arrived with in a blue Chevrolet Impala that belonged to the girlfriend of Marquis Skillman, Maurice’s twin brother – to the time he said a shadowy “silhouette” raised an outstretched arm around 1:15 a.m. and let off 22 shots in seconds on the packed deck of the banquet hall.
Batie was shot in the head while he stood with a friend. He was pronounced dead at the hospital.
Last time, a jury was not convinced.
A trial in February resulted in mistrial when a jury couldn’t reach a unanimous verdict, guaranteeing a second round of Peterson and Co.
This panel must also decide if Peterson’s vision is on the money.
The detective, once again, played the part of outsized tour guide, gesturing to jurors to take note of certain times on the tapes when he said Skillman and Tucker set their plan in action.
He described the garb the two men wore, Tucker dressed in a varsity jacket, bearing decals on the left breast and left arm of the jacket.
A man bearing a strong resemblance to Tucker was also captured wearing a dark-colored varsity jacket with what appeared to be white arms inside the club.
Jurors were shown a blown-up photo of the man standing next to Marquis Skillman, who was not charged in connection with Batie’s murder.
Marquis Skillman may prove key for prosecutors. The twin brother was called as a witness this week and largely dodged prosecutors’ questions on the stand when asked about what he told Peterson during an interview in January 2013.
Jurors were shown the interview a day later, in which Marquis Skillman marked up photos for Peterson, pointing out himself and a man he knew as “Tex.” Tex is Tucker’s nickname.
He also told the detective he was at the banquet hall with his brother, Maurice.
Maurice Skillman’s defense attorney has always acknowledged the brothers were at the club that night, to have a good time. But Nicole Carlo said her client ended up wrongfully accused of murder.
For Peterson, Marquis Skillman’s interview proved critical in helping him identify Tucker and Maurice Skillman at later times during the tapes.
While Peterson’s vision may be 20/20, and prosecutors hope jurors believe his word is golden, it is difficult to tell whether two men who rifled through a white van and walked back and forth from alleyways near the parking lot of the banquet hall minutes before the murder are the same men who appear to resemble Tucker and Maurice Skillman on surveillance tapes inside Baldassari.
Peterson testified that both men climbed inside a white van, apparently to retrieve something. He used a laser point to explain to jurors that one surveillance angle capturing the rear of the van showed Varsity Jacket – Tucker – reaching into the back seat.
He said if jurors looked closely they would see Tucker’s white-armed varsity jacket poking out from the rear window.
Nonplussed by the defendants’ claims of innocence, Peterson said Maurice Skillman was also captured by the tapes fleeing shortly after the shooting, with his arm by his side and “a black object” in his hand.
Peterson is back on the stand Thursday.