Passion, a promotion fueled cop's clash with councilman boyfriend, lawyer says

By Thomas Moriarty and Karen Yi | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
on April 06, 2017

 

NEWARK -- South Ward Councilman John Sharpe James described for an Essex County jury Thursday how his ex-girlfriend, an Irvington police officer, chased him down the streets of Newark and struck his SUV three times after he dumped her by email in January 2015.

Wearing a tan suit and bright blue tie, James, 48, told the jury that Monique Smith -- who had been promoted that day to the rank of captain -- rear-ended his Nissan Xterra twice and side-swiped it once with her Honda Accord as she raced from his Pomona Avenue apartment building to his father's home on Wilbur Avenue to confront him over the breakup.

"I called my parents' house because it was six blocks away -- because I knew I couldn't make it to the police precinct," he said.

Once he made it to the house, he went inside as his father, former longtime Newark mayor Sharpe James, intervened with Smith, he said.

"My father put up his arms to block her from getting close to me," the younger James said. He said that inside the house, he could still hear Smith saying, "'I loved your son ... mayor James, I want to be with your son."

In opening arguments before Superior Court Judge Michael L. Ravin, Assistant Prosecutor Cheryl Cucinello told the jury that the public jobs held by Smith, John Sharpe James and his father weren't relevant to their decision.

Attorneys said the elder James will testify at trial as a prosecution witness.

"Ladies and gentlemen: titles, positions -- that's not what this case is about," said Cucinello, representing the state along with Assistant Prosecutor Carlo Fioranelli. "This case is about the defendant using her car as a weapon."

Smith is charged with two indictable offenses: unlawful possession of a weapon and possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose. A charge of aggravated assault was dismissed prior to trial.

She also faces disorderly persons offenses to be decided by the judge, including criminal mischief resulting in damage of $500 or less to James' SUV.

Smith, who at one time headed the Irvington Police Department's internal affairs division, was suspended following her arrest in the case.

She has since turned down a plea agreement that would likely have seen her sentenced to probation on a charge of fourth-degree criminal mischief, and would have required her to give up her police job.

James told the court that three days before the Jan. 5 breakup, he and Smith -- who had been staying with him -- had an argument that led to his decision to end the relationship, which had begun in late October 2014.

Having experienced too many arguments in too short a period of time, he said, "it was a relationship I did not want to continue."

After sleeping on the couch that night, he left his condominium that weekend and asked the landlord to change the locks, he said. He later placed her belongings in an unlocked shed at her home, and after sending her an email ending the relationship, sent her a text telling her to check her email.

When James returned to his condominium to pick up the new keys, he stopped to talk to a friend outside his building. That friend, Owen Benson, testified Thursday that James suddenly told him he had to go, before driving off toward Lyons Avenue with a woman following in another car close behind.

Cucinello framed James' actions as "an attempt to avoid all confrontation," which she said Smith nonetheless brought to the situation when she drove to his building that day.

Defense attorney Steven Altman, joined by his son Joshua Altman in representing Smith, told the jury it was rare for him to stand up in opening arguments and say he agrees with what the prosecution just said.

"But I do," he said. "Most of what (Cucinello) said is true."

What her arguments didn't cover, Altman said, is the significance of that day in the life of Smith, who he said had been planning to celebrate her promotion with James.

On the day of the promotion, he told the jury, "Monique doesn't hear from John, except for a text message that says: 'read my email.'"

Whether Smith's attempts to get an answer from James and to profess her love for him constitute harassment will have to be decided by the court, he said.

While surveillance footage from city streets does show her following James in her vehicle that day, Altman said, it doesn't show contact between the vehicles.

"What we intend to show is that nothing happened -- that there was no contact (consistent with damage)," he said, telling jurors the prosecution won't be able to satisfy 12 of them at the end of the trial.

The trial is expected to resume Wednesday.

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