A New Jersey man who attacked a young mother in a brutal 2013 home invasion caught on a “nanny cam” was convicted of aggravated assault, robbery and a slew of other charges Wednesday, but he was found not guilty of the most serious charge of attempted murder.
Race loomed large over the deliberations, as nine black jurors and three white jurors determined the fate of 45-year-old Shawn Custis.
The video was graphic and difficult to watch, showing a burly man push his way into a suburban home where the victim and her 3-year-old daughter were watching television. The man then punched and kicked the woman for several minutes, at one point throwing her down a flight of stairs, all while the toddler watched from the couch. The victim’s young son was sleeping upstairs at the time. Custis then fled the location with some jewelry, including the victim’s wedding ring.
But it’s what appeared much later on the video, after Millburn police responded, that drew almost as much attention.
A white officer was overheard using racial slurs to describe the attacker, who is black, and Detective Collin McMillan admitted during testimony in May that he made the remarks. He also testified he didn’t question defendant Shawn Custis and didn’t collect evidence, though he was present at the man’s arrest and filed evidence collected by other investigators.
The specter of potential police bias hung over the trial, as jurors weighed whether to believe Custis’ defense attorney’s claim that his client was framed by racist cops or prosecutors’ contentions that bias didn’t play a part and that they were led to Custis by several people who identified him after seeing the video on television.
Prosecutors showed the video to jurors at the beginning of the trial; when Assistant Essex County Prosecutor Jamel Semper showed it again later in the trial, two female jurors held their hands over their eyes.
Custis was arrested about a week after the crime in New York City, after police say they received calls from several women saying they recognized him. Prosecutors also presented evidence that blood on jeans found in his apartment came from the victim, who testified but whose name has not been released.
Defense attorney John McMahon argued that the investigation was tainted by racial animus and that police ignored evidence that could have pointed to other suspects. He also said the video quality isn’t good enough for a positive identification of Custis.
Custis was convicted of all charges except attempted murder, which included assault, robbery, endangering the welfare of a child, burglary, criminal restraint, and theft. Prosecutors will push for life behind bars based on prior convictions when Custis is sentenced on June 29.