Man found guilty for role in death of Trenton cop’s son
TRENTON >> When the jury forewoman said “not guilty,” to one of the conspiracy charges, Luddie Austin’s heart dropped. He shook his head in disbelief.
A sense of despair eased over him as he contemplated that there would be no “Justice for James,” his son who was shot to death when a “silly, silly” dispute over car windshields turned violent in Trenton in February 2013.
“I thought everything was over,” the retired Trenton sergeant said. “It was confusing.”
It was actually just beginning – another chapter in a tragic three-year odyssey that tore up city residents who befriended the well-known cop as well as the Trenton Police department that felt it lost “one of our own.”
Inside a tense Mercer County courtroom filled with spectators and sheriff officers, a jury went on to deliver guilty verdicts against Raheem Currie, of Trenton, on three charges related to the death of a 18-year-old James Austin, a father of twin daughters and Luddie’s son.
While simultaneously being acquitted of murder and a weapons offense, Currie was convicted of a lesser charge of aggravated manslaughter, conspiracy to commit unlawful possession of a weapon and unlawful possession of a weapon.
He was also found not guilty of murder – which carried a potential life term – conspiracy to possess a weapon for an unlawful purpose and possession of weapon for an unlawful purpose, following roughly 15 hours of jury deliberations over three days.
Luddie Austin and his family members, initially aghast and then overjoyed by the jury’s decision, tried to keep their emotions bottled up after Judge Pedro Jimenez warned spectators any outbursts could result in them being held in contempt of court.
But the split verdicts were a byproduct of the case, an emotional one, that amounted to a tight trapeze walk for lawyers and the judge because of some of the nuanced legal issues.
Currie’s attorney, Jack Furlong, surmised the inconsistent verdicts meant the jury was at a loss about how to reconcile the heart-tugging case.
“I can’t blame the jury because if they were confused, they’d have to get in line,” he said.
After the initial scorn and confusion dissipated, Austin’s mother, Yvonne Maxwell, kissed her Bible and pictures of her slain son.
Luddie Austin shook hands and hugged relatives outside the courtroom.
“It’s hard,” he said afterward. “It’s surreal. We waited three years for the man to be put in handcuffs. We’re still hurting. It’s went from down to up with the verdicts. … I don’t wish hate on nobody. [Currie’s] parents just lost a child, too, but they lost him in a different way.”
Currie was inconsolable as his attorney patted him on the back following the devastating news.
Dressed in a black suit, he was led away from the courtroom in handcuffs after Jimenez revoked the $75,000 bail and scheduled sentencing for Sept. 8.
Currie, who is faced with up to 40 years in prison, became the second Trenton man held responsible for Austin’s death.
Cousin Robert Bartley, who got a 25-year deal to testify against Currie at trial, already admitted to shooting James Austin after he intervened when Currie and Austin busted out each other’s car windows earlier in the day.
“It’s just a tragic loss,” said James Scott, the assistant prosecutor who took over the case from retired prosecutor Lewis Korngut. “James was just starting his life to be killed so tragically over such a silly, silly situation.”
The case, not only tragic, was also complex.
To some degree, Jimenez was “flying blind,” Furlong said, because of a state Supreme Court decision in another case, State v. Bridges, that effectively moved the goalposts for whether someone is responsible for murder when an agreement is not reached between co-conspirators about committing the murder.
In Currie’s case, the judge dismissed a conspiracy to commit murder charge against Currie during the trial after prosecutors agreed there was not enough evidence to sustain the count.
That was based on testimony from Currie’s cousin, Robert Bartley, who said he did not intend to kill James Austin when he went over to his home Feb. 26, 2013. But he went to the home armed after his cousin asked him if he had his gun.
Bartley contended that he kept the gun in his pocket while he confronted Austin about a broken windshield to try to get him to pay for it.
Currie and two others got into a car and drove to pick up Bartley.
On the way over, Currie used his girlfriend’s cell phone to call Bartley. Witnesses provided contradicting testimony about what was said on the call.
Bartley claimed Currie asked him if he had his gun.
Endia Kaver, Currie’s girlfriend, did not hear her boyfriend say anything about a gun.
After they arrived back at the home, Bartley went up to the door. He and Austin exchanged words. Bartley pulled out his .32-caliber gun and shot Austin once in the chest, in front of Austin’s girlfriend who was clutching their infant daughter.
The judge ruled the jury could decide whether Currie was guilty of murder as an accomplice, as well as remaining conspiracy and weapons charges.
“Why else bring a gun to a fist fight?” Jimenez surmised.
Furlong vowed to appeal the conviction. He said he would “bet the house” that it will get overturned.
“The practical outcome of this verdict is Raheem Currie will spend three years in prison waiting for the appellate court to say, ‘Nope, you got it wrong,’” Furlong said. “I don’t mean this as a pejorative term but I think Jimenez was flying blind, which is what a trial judge has to do when the Supreme Court changes the law on you.”
Luddie Austin and Yvonne Maxwell, James Austin’s parents, had just absorbed the outcome to start worrying about a possible appeal.
“It’s just one step at a time,” Luddie said, tears forming in his eyes. “We always wanted Justice for James. We wanted justice in the eyes of the law. We never asked for any special treatment. On Aug. 3, justice was served. I can see [James] smiling now. He would just be so happy.”