Prosecutors say Trenton man conspired to kill Trenton cop’s son
A dispute between a slain Trenton cop’s son and a city man began over shattered car windows.
By the end of it, lives had been shattered.
James Austin, 18, was shot once in the chest in his East State Street home on the afternoon of Feb. 26, 2013, as his girlfriend looked on helplessly while clutching one of Austin’s twin daughters, prosecutors said in opening statements Tuesday.
Robert Bartley admitted fatally shooting Austin and accepted a plea that calls for him to serve 25 years in prison. He must also testify at the trial of his cousin, Raheem Currie, who faces up to 20 years in prison if he is convicted of conspiracy.
Currie has maintained his innocence, and opposing attorneys delivered sharply different accounts of what happened that day.
Luddie Austin, James father, and his mother, Yvonne, along with about a dozen relatives, were in the court for the start of Currie’s trial, which began more than three years after the tragic encounter.
Luddie and Yvonne sobbed during parts of Assistant Prosecutor James Scott’s opening statement.
Scott said Currie planned and took steps to retaliate against Austin, and is just as responsible as Bartley for his death.
“Even if you don’t pull the trigger, you can be held accountable, and that’s what this trial is about,” Scott said.
The jury briefly heard testimony from retired Trenton Police detective Gary Britton, who is back on the stand Wednesday. They will also hear from witnesses who were inside Currie’s car as well as from Bartley, Scott said.
In an even, matter-of-fact tone that belied the nerves of delivering his second-ever opening statement, defense attorney Andrew Ferencevych said the cousins did not conspire to kill Austin.
Bartley, who was 18 months older, bigger, stronger and always looked out for his little cousin, admitted to cops that he acted alone, the defense attorney said.
He gave police a statement 28 hours after the murder, admitting he had a gun in his pocket at the time of the shooting. Bartley told cops Currie didn’t know about the gun.
Afraid that Austin was armed with a gun in his right hand, Bartley told police he shot Austin when the cop’s son cussed him out and lunged toward him.
Bartley changed his story when he realized he faced life in prison if he was convicted of murder and began cooperating with prosecutors.
“This is not a whodunit, an alibi type case,” Ferencevych said. “We know who killed Mr. Austin. Mr. Currie did not kill Mr. Austin. Mr. Bartley consistently stated no one else was responsible. He consistently said that it wasn’t’ planned, consistently said that he didn’t intend to shoot anybody. He explained there was no conspiracy and they shouldn’t charge anybody with conspiracy. But here we are.”
The prosecutor told jurors that Currie and James Austin lost their tempers and busted out each other’s car windows. One of the damaged vehicles belonged to Currie’s aunt.
Currie, who was with his girlfriend and another man at the time, decided to get even, Scott said. He got into a blue Honda Civil, driven by a man named Brandon Hill, and headed toward the home of a relative.
Currie used his girlfriend’s cell phone to call his cousin, Bartley, who had a “secret gun” stashed upstairs at his residence on the 600 block of Greenwood Avenue in Trenton, prosecutors said.
Prosecutors said only Bartley and Currie knew about the firearm, a .32-caliber handgun.
Scott recounted the alleged conversation between Currie and Bartley for jurors.
“Robert, you got the gun?” Scott said, allegedly quoting the defendant.
Bartley retrieved the gun, got into the car, and the group headed back toward James Austin’s East State Street home.
On the way over, Currie asked Bartley to hand over the gun, Scott said, but he didn’t.
Instead, Bartley took matters into his own hands.
Bartley told Currie he was going to “spray up the house,” Scott said. He got out of the car, knocked on Austin’s door and demanded that the cop’s son pay for the broken windshield.
Austin was incredulous, Scott said.
“What are you kidding me?” the prosecutor said, channeling Austin. “He broke my window, too. We’re even.”
Austin went to shut the door, but Bartley put his foot in the doorway and forced it open, Scott said. While Austin’s frightened girlfriend looked on with his infant daughter in her hands, Bartley fired a single shot, striking Austin in the chest.
Austin fell to the floor, while Bartley fled. Austin’s girlfriend called for help, and cops arrived within two minutes, Scott said.
Bartley, Currie and others went to a residence at 119 Hanford Place, where Bartley asked his friend, Ryan Smalls, to hide the gun, prosecutors said.