Judge shoots down mistrial in Trenton cop son slay case
A judge Thursday morning rejected a request from Raheem Currie’s defense attorney for a mistrial based on testimony from a Trenton Police officer who noted that the victim, James Austin, was the son of a retired police officer.
Currie is being tried for conspiring with his cousin, Robert Bartley, to murder Austin, the slain 18-year-old son of retired city cop Luddie Austin, in February
“A mistrial should only be granted to prevent an obvious failure of justice,” Judge Pedro Jimenez said. “There has to be clear showing of actual harm.”
The issue revolved around the testimony of Drew Astbury, a K-9 officer from Trenton Police.
While responding to a question from Assistant Prosecutor James Scott about whether he learned the victim’s identity, Astbury, who first responded to the shooting at East State Street residence, noted Wednesday that James Austin was the son of “one of our own.”
The comment drew an immediate objection from Currie’s attorneys. And the matter was addressed at sidebar.
Afterward, Jimenez told jurors to disregard the police officer’s comment because Austin’s connection to the police department was not “relevant.”
But Jack Furlong, Currie’s attorney, didn’t feel the instruction eliminated the taint the comment may have on jurors’ deliberations. And on Thursday morning, he asked the judge for a mistrial because Astbury’s testimony, along with memorial buttons Austin’s family have worn at trial, cast a “partisan and prejudicial” pall over the murder trial.
Scott, arguing against the mistrial, said Astbury’s testimony was “not solicited by the state.” The passing comment, while extraneous, did not impact the fairness of the trial, the prosecutor said.
“In trial,” Scott said, “things happen.”
After listening to opposing attorneys present their cases, Jimenez rejected Furlong’s argument as nothing more than “artful legal terminology” and denied the mistrial request.
Delivering a decision from the bench, Jimenez touched on the frayed collective nerve of Americans who have denounced and demonstrated, sometimes violently, against a rash of police shootings of black men and other police misconduct cases around the country.
The judge said public’s views of police officers have shifted from “deification to demonization,” and the mistrust of cops has infiltrated the judicial system. Jurors, he said, scrutinize police officers’ testimony more these days than they may have a decade ago.
“We readily observe people can think that a police officer is less likely to tell the truth than a [civilian],” Jimenez said, noting prospective jurors in Currie’s case were dismissed because of a potential bias against cops.
“For better or worse, things have changed in our society,” the judge said. “There’s no discernible basis or evidence beyond mere speculation that [Astbury’s] testimony was nothing more than irrelevant information to be stricken from the record with a curative instruction.”