Defense: Trenton detective looked to ‘nail’ wrong men for Batie murder

Carl Batie and his brother, Karshawn, were leaving the Baldassari Regency banquet hall in the early-morning hours of Nov. 11, 2012.

They stepped out on the deck to get some fresh air, when Carl noticed a familiar face standing on a wooden stoop at the edge of the balcony, gazing over the crowd.

It was Alexis Feliciano, a convicted felon who was turning his life around. Feliciano landed a job as a bouncer at the banquet hall.

Maurice Skillman

Maurice Skillman

Batie, the affable 27-year-old corrections officer from Mercer County, walked over to Feliciano.

They played basketball together in the past and encountered each other at the Mercer County Correction Center in Hopewell, where Feliciano spent time as an inmate.

They chatted about Carl’s dog-breeding business for a few minutes.

Then gunshots rang out, shattering a celebration that brought out more than 200 people to the banquet hall to rejoice over the re-election of President Barack Obama.

Only after the gunshots stopped, and the people ran from the balcony toward the front exit, did the carnage become clear.

“One brother murdered,” Assistant Prosecutor James Scott said. “Another brother affected for the rest of his life.”

Scott delivered the powerful line during closing arguments Wednesday, in the second trial of two men charged with Batie’s murder.

Maurice Skillman and Hykeem “Tex” Tucker, whose first trial this year ended in mistrial, sat motionless as the prosecutor pointed to the evidence he said shows they are responsible for the corrections officer’s death.

Defense attorneys threw out names of two individuals – alleged Bloods gang member Shaquel Rock and Edward Acosta, a man convicted of shooting another city man in the face in 2013 – who they say may be responsible for Batie’s murder.

They also pointed to a “blind spot” on surveillance tapes that captured the inside and outside of the banquet hall, in an attempt to deflect blame from their clients.

“The truth is stranger than fiction,” said Nicole Carlo, Skillman’s attorney.

The tapes are the cornerstone of prosecutors’ case against Skillman and Tucker.

Scott said they show the men “plotting and planning” in the parking lot of the banquet hall minutes before the shooting.

They weren’t talking about sports,” he said.

Trenton Police Detective Scott Peterson testified he noticed Tucker at the banquet hall wearing a varsity jacket.

He poured over hours of surveillance, tracing the steps of “Varsity Jacket” and “Tall Guy” – the nickname for Skillman – before concluding they were the killers.

He said a shadowy figure who raised his arm toward the packed balcony around 1:15 a.m. was Skillman. And Tucker acted as a lookout, even waiving to a group of women moments before the shooting.

Scott said the varsity jacket and Maurice’s light-colored shoes stood out “like a light bulb” on the surveillance tapes and made it easy for Peterson to identify them among 200 or more people at the banquet hall.

While tapes inside the club appear to clearly capture Tucker and Skillman, defense attorneys have stressed the identification of the men from parking lot footage is an open question.

And they hammered the point during interruption-plagued closing arguments that took nearly five hours, and required four stoppages, book-ended by technical difficulties.

A juror also took a break for an emergency phone call and jurors had an hour for lunch. Closings ended around 4 p.m., leaving Judge Andrew Smithson with no time to charge jurors on the law.

They will return for the charge Thursday and then begin deliberations, possibly coming back Friday.

In a lot of ways, the imperfect pace of the day symbolized the murder case at hand: an imperfect investigation of an imperfect crime, with gaps on both sides that lend themselves to “speculation” prosecutors cautioned jurors against.

It’s the same “speculation” introduced by defense attorneys to try to wiggle their clients out of the possibility of life in prison if they are convicted of murdering Batie.

Hykeem Tucker

Hykeem Tucker

Carlo told jurors Peterson made a number of fatal flaws that led to the prosecution of an “innocent man.”

She said surveillance tapes could not be relied upon to convict the men.

Tucker’s attorney, Christopher Campbell, called the tapes, and screenshots taken from them, “grainy, awful, discolored and terrible.”

Carlo said Peterson was “not a bad person but he made a mistake. He tried to fit things together … like a puzzle.”

“He wasn’t there that night,” she said. “Alexis Feliciano was.”

She pointed to an altercation Feliciano’s brother, Luis, had with Rock about an hour before the banquet hall was shot up. ’

Trenton Police officer Jason Woodhead testified about the altercation.

Rock was upset when Luis Feliciano wouldn’t let him in the club after he flashed a fake ID.

Woodhead intervened. Rock walked across toward the street and shouted at Woodhead that he was going to return and shoot up the club.

Woodhead recalled Rock telling him that his badge “wouldn’t save him from a bullet.”

Rock was later charged with making terroristic threats. He was questioned about the murder.

Investigators searched his cousin’s car and found a Champion varsity jacket, which was shown to jurors at trial.

Prosecutors say that is not the same varsity jacket worn by Tucker. His jacket was never recovered.

Despite failing a lie-detector test and providing a phony alibi to law enforcement, Rock was never charged in connection with the corrections officer’s death.

“This is not a level-headed person,” Carlo said. “This is not person who is afraid of law enforcement. He’s threatening to come shoot up the place, but we have to believe this is coincidence?”

Scott countered: “You have heard a lot about Shaquel Rock, Shaquel Rock, Shaquel Rock. What you didn’t hear is what Shaquel Rock looked like.”

Peterson testified Rock was shorter and wore different clothes than the shooter.

Feliciano testified he caught a glimpse of the shooter, a left-handed man in a gray hoodie standing on top of the hood of a car in the parking lot.

Feliciano was on top of a wooden stoop overlooking the crowd and was the “only eyewitness”  to the shooting.

Scott said Feliciano was “stressed” after being shot at, and his testimony about the shooter being on top of the hood wasn’t supported by surveillance tapes.

“He’s telling you what he thinks is the truth,” Scott said.

Scott said the tapes tell the whole story and unravel lies Tucker told detectives during an interrogation following his arrest.

“The surveillance tapes don’t lie,” he said. “They are what they are. They saw what they saw. They recorded what they recorded.”

Carlo said the tapes, and the witnesses brought in to testify, were used to “solidify Peterson’s ultimate conclusion.”

The conclusion comes from the mouth of a “bad cop,” Campbell said.

“You heard him mumbling for an hour,” Campbell said of Tucker’s interview with police. “You heard Peterson bullying him, shuffling around his papers in frustration until good cop comes in to try to smooth things over. … If you give someone a hammer, all they’re gonna see is nails.”

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