Slain Trenton cop’s son, a symbol for community, honored at DC rally
Regina Thompson-Jenkins stood before a sea of supporters outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C. as “a grieving mother.”
At a rally this month, she called for tighter gun control to quell the violence on the inner city streets. She described how she lost her only son, Tre Lane, who was shot in Trenton in 2012 after sacrificing his life to save two women who he barely knew.
“My story today can be yours tomorrow,” she told the crowd.
Then, one by one, she rattled off names of murder victims in New Jersey’s capital city who were taken from their families too soon.
“David Lewis III, Ira Charles, Ciony Kirkman, James Austin,” she said. “All lives matter.”
James Austin’s family knows Thompson-Jenkins’ pain all too well.
Their son was gunned down in February 2013, when a dispute between he and another city man, Raheem Currie, turned deadly after they busted out each other’s car windows.
Robert Bartley, Currie’s cousin, admitted shooting Austin on East State Street on Feb. 26, 2013, and is testifying against him at the trial which began this month.
Austin was 18 years old, a father of twin infant daughters, and the son of retired city cop Luddie Austin. He died before Blacks Lives Matter became a sweeping movement following a string of police shooting of young black men from the hardscrabble streets of Trenton to suburban St. Paul, Minn.
And he died before a rash of killings of police officers from Dallas to Baton Rouge, La., that some in law enforcement blame on a perceived anti-cop sentiment from the Black Lives Matter movement that has divided America along racial lines.
But as Currie’s case plays out in the courts in Trenton, a city roiled by its own near-fatal police shooting of a 14-year-old black youth named Radazz Hearns, Austin has become a symbol embodying Thompson-Jenkins’ message of unity.
Because of his unique connections to the urban community and to the Trenton Police department that his father worked for over 18 years, James Austin appeals to both aisles in this tense political dialogue.
“You feel more responsibility,” said Lewis Korngut, a former Mercer County prosecutor who headed the homicide until he retired last year. “It’s only human.”
Assistant Prosecutor James Scott took over the case for Korngut. His measured demeanor in the courtroom has been a tonic to a case rife with emotions, further illustrated when Korngut, now doing defense work, showed up on his day off to take in the testimony of one witness.
Korngut tried to play it off to a defense attorney that he no longer has a “horse in the race.” But his mere presence at the trial said otherwise.
Korngut grew close with Austin’s relatives while the case was his. He also worked with Luddie Austin on other cases while the elder Austin, known for his appearance on the A&E reality television show, “Manhunters: Fugitive Task Force,” worked the city streets for nearly two decades.
Luddie Austin, a lifelong Trenton resident, has clout in the community. He did a tour of duty in the Iraq War, in 2004, and retired from the city’s police force in 2011 with the rank of sergeant.
His extensive knowledge of the capital city and his wide network of informants and citizens whom he turned to for information is part of the reason James’ death touched such a nerve in Trenton.
Luddie Austin actually learned from those people that Currie had posted bail and was free in the streets.
James’ death also hit the police department hard.
Trenton Police officer Drew Astbury, when he testified last week, called James “one of our own.”
Earlier this year, a candlelight vigil was held for James at Hamilton Manor.
And earlier this month, Thompson-Jenkins put James Austin’s name out to a national audience, during her powerful speech in D.C.
“We always hear about the Trayvon Martins and Jordan Davises or the Sandy Hook kids,” said Thompson-Jenkins, whose son’s murder remains unsolved. “But our kids in the city of Trenton are just as important as those children because they all got killed with a gun.”
Luddie was moved by the gesture.
Currie’s defense attorneys have tried to keep a stranglehold over the emotions in the courtroom, asking for a mistrial over Astbury’s comment, afraid that it may lead the jury to feel sympathy for one side.
Defense attorney Jack Furlong asked a judge to bar the Austin family from wearing memorial buttons because it could inflame the jury.
The request pressed Luddie Austin’s buttons. He called Furlong a “money-hungry” attorney who will defend anybody.
“I’m not going to take any bait from Luddie Austin,” Furlong said. “The man lost his son. It’s not my day to take a shot at him. He’s been emotional throughout these proceedings. He’s accused judges of corruption and is accusing me of being hungry for money. He’s not wrong. Let this story be a reminder to my other clients who owe me.”
Furlong made no apologies about asking for the ban on the memorial buttons, one which touched on Thompson-Jenkins’ message: “Our daddy missed our first steps because of guns.”
“As one Supreme Court justice said, ‘There is no First Amendment right inside a courtroom for spectators to try to put their thumbs on the scales of justice,’” Furlong said. “All you’re doing when you sit in a courtroom with a picture of James and his children is trying to give a good character reference for James and curry sympathy with the jury.”
Thompson-Jenkins said she feels victims’ rights are trampled by defendants’ rights to a fair trial.
She feels the fear of retaliation discourages people from cooperating with the police and suggested that information should be shielded from defendants who are entitled to confront their accusers in court.
Luddie Austin also feels cooperation is a problem in his son’s case, but for different reasons. He lashed out at witnesses for giving incomplete testimony that diminishes their roles in his son’s death.
Bartley and Currie were the only ones charged, even though two others, Brandon Hill, and Endia Kaver, Currie’s girlfriend, were in the car when Bartley said he was going to “spray up” James Austin’s home.
Hill, who prosecutors have stressed was a witness, drove and dropped off Bartley and Currie after the shooting.
Kaver claimed on the witness stand she had no idea what Bartley meant when he said he was going to spray up the house.
Kaver said that while she heard the conversation between Currie and Bartley prior to them picking him up, Currie only asked Bartley if his mother was home.
Neither she nor Hill mentioned hearing Currie ask his cousin about a gun.
Bartley said that prior to the shooting, Currie knew about his gun, which he kept stowed in a shoebox inside the home they shared. He said he flashed it in front of Currie moments before the shooting.
Hill, who said he was James’ friend, said that Bartley warned them not to tell anybody about the murder when he got back in the car after the shooting.
“It’s going to eat [Hill’s] conscience up and it may haunt him the rest of his life, and good, you drove someone somewhere that killed a person you consider a friend,” Luddie Austin said. “What they’re trying to say is no one talked. In that moment, what, did they become devout monks who took a vow of silence? Come on.”
Some of the Hill’s testimony painted James in unflattering terms.
It contrasted with the portrait James’ girlfriend, LaPorsha Guy, put on for the jury, of an attentive father who came to her East State Street home to visit their twin daughters. She said he had a cheesesteak and a soda in his hands when Curry called out to him to come outside and fight.
But Hill said that two days before the murder, he was over at Currie’s house. Currie came inside with a swollen eye, from allegedly being punched by James Austin during a drug-fueled robbery.
Toxicology results taken during an autopsy showed that James had marijuana in his system.
“If he did [use it], I’m gonna say it was probably recreational,” Luddie Austin said. “The street life, he wasn’t out there like that.”
If there is one thing everyone agrees on, it’s that James Austin, regardless of his race or connections to Trenton Police, did not deserve to be shot to death.
“An aggrieved percentage of the community has assumed that the words, ‘Black Lives Matter’ is more important than other lives, and they got the message exactly wrong,” Furlong said. “‘Blue Lives’ shouldn’t matter any more than brown lives, yellow lives, red lives, black lives or even white lives. It shouldn’t matter who James Austin was. It should be enough to say he was a human being.”
Thompson-Jenkins said she is perturbed by what she views as increasing violence in the capital city. The alleged killers are getting younger, she said, pointing to recent murders allegedly involving city teens.
“People don’t get it until it knocks on their door,” Thompson-Jenkins said. “I do have hope for our city. I was born and raised here. But do I want to stay in this city? No.”
About a cop’s son not being safe on the city streets, she added: “It speaks volumes.”