TOMS RIVER, N.J. — Jahmell Crockam once boasted that he would kill a police officer rather than be arrested and go to prison. On Thursday, a jury decided that, having made good on his threat, Crockam would probably spend the rest of his life behind bars.
The Superior Court jury found the 20-year-old Crockam guilty of murder and weapons offenses in the Jan. 14, 2011, shooting of Patrolman Christopher Matlosz. The jury also determined there were aggravating factors in the case that should trigger an automatic life sentence without parole when Crockam is sentenced on March 22.
"He was killed for no other reason than that he had a badge and a uniform," Ocean County Prosecutor Marlene Lynch Ford said. "It's ironic that this defendant, whose contempt of this court initially started this process, was afforded a fair trial. His rights were protected, and he was protected at every step by a system he held in contempt."
She was referring to outstanding arrest warrants that authorities had issued for Crockam involving weapons charges. Prosecutors said Crockam, who also is awaiting trial for another, unrelated murder that took place a few months before the officer was killed, thought he was about to be arrested on those warrants for weapons offenses, and killed the officer to avoid going to jail.
The verdict came on the second day of deliberations in the highly publicized case, attended daily by many of the slain officer's relatives, as well as police officers from numerous agencies.
Matlosz' fiancee, Kelly Walsifer, collapsed in sobs inside the courtroom when the verdict was read.
"Chris was present in the room," she said. "He was with us, with all of us. He can rest in peace now.
"I have a lot of emotions right now," said Walsifer, clutching a set of pink rosary beads. "I want to be overwhelmed with joy, but it's very bittersweet. It doesn't bring Chris back."
Crockam showed no emotion as the verdicts were read, although a few of Matlosz' relatives and friends exclaimed, "Yes!"
Immediately afterward, Crockam stood up from the chair he had occupied throughout the three-week trial, two sheriff's officers grabbed his hands and placed them behind his back, handcuffed him and led him out of the courtroom.
His defense lawyer, Mark Fury, had maintained that police arrested the wrong man. He elected not to present a defense of Crockam, contending that there was no reliable evidence or witness identification of Crockam as the shooter.
"I believe that everyone has the right to a fair trial, even poor kids from bad neighborhoods on heinous charges," he said. "There was a ton of evidence to start with. We took it down as best we could."
The murder weapon was never recovered; one of Crockam's acquaintances testified it was thrown into the Delaware River.
Prosecutors presented evidence including witness testimony from two residents of the snow-covered street where the killing took place who identified Crockam as the man they saw blast the officer three times with a gun.
Matlosz had just driven up alongside a man near an apartment complex in Lakewood and called for him to come over to the patrol car. The two neighbors testified the man they identified as Crockam walked up to the car, pulled a gun out of his pocket and shot the officer three times.
A massive manhunt involving more than 100 officers from numerous law enforcement agencies arrested Crockam two days later. He was hiding in the apartment of a friend in Camden.
Several acquaintances of Crockam, including people who drove him to Camden after the shooting, testified that Crockam admitted killing the officer. Several inmates who were at the Ocean County Jail at the same time Crockam was arrested also were called to testify that Crockam boasted to them that he had killed the police officer.
The mother of one of Crockam's friends testified that Crockam told her a month before Matlosz was shot that he would kill a police officer rather than go to prison.
Tanya Cook Peteete testified that Crockam left court without making a scheduled appearance in December 2010, and that she urged him to return before authorities issued an arrest warrant for him.
"He said he wasn't going back to the court," Cook Peteete testified. "He just said he's not going back to jail. If he's going to jail, it's going to be for killing a cop."
Crockam is awaiting trial for a second murder, that of a man whose body was found dumped on a street corner on Oct. 15, 2011. That case will either come to trial in September, or in January 2013, prosecutors said.
Crockam and another man were charged with that murder on the day of Matlosz's funeral. Many of the hundreds of law enforcement and governmental officials gathered inside a church in Lakewood got an email on their Blackberrys and cellphones during the funeral, announcing that Crockam was charged with a second murder.
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Information leading to the new murder charge was developed as police investigated Matlosz's slaying.
Copyright 2012 Associated Press