Superior Court Judge Stephen Taylor faces a hard decision on Friday.
Should he release Cyprian Luke — the Morristown teen seen in videos being jabbed in the face while pressed to the ground by Dover police during his arrest last weekend– from the Morris County Jail pending his trial in a domestic violence case?
For two and a half hours on Thursday, Taylor heard arguments on both sides–amidst theatrics from the gallery that prompted him to admonish the woman in the domestic violence dispute.
Identified in court records as “S.H.,” she brought her 18-month-old daughter into the Morristown courtroom. The toddler cooed and called for “Daddy” when sheriff’s officers brought Luke, 19, into the detention hearing.
Luke was indicted on a third-degree charge of aggravated assault, for allegedly grabbing the throat and / or “blocking the nose or mouth” of the woman while “punching, kicking and shoving” her during an altercation in Boonton on Feb. 2, 2019.
On Thursday, as the judge restated testimony about inconsistencies between an S.H. 911 call and her subsequent statements to police alleging a more recent violent episode involving Luke, the woman blurted” “It’s not true!”
Taylor politely but firmly told S.H. that public comments were not proper in court. She apologized, then burst from the courtroom, sobbing loudly.
S.H. returned to hear Public Defender Elizabeth Cervenak paint her as the abuser, and Luke as the victim.
The lawyer said S.H. attacked Luke twice last year–allegedly cutting him with a knife in November. She has violated a court order barring her from contact with Luke, according to Cervenak.
Cervenak asked the judge to release Luke with an electronic monitoring device, and home detention. But there was confusion over whose home. Although Luke’s mother, a Morristown resident, was present in court, Cervenak suggested it would be preferable to confine Luke to the home of an aunt in Mine Hill. The aunt was not present.
Judge Taylor needed more information, and directed everyone to return on Friday.
“I don’t know if Mr. Luke, if I release him, will be there by himself. With no supervision, I’m not comfortable with that, given his prior record. And his record is not one to be envied, quite frankly. He shows considerable disdain for the criminal justice system and court orders….Why is this going to be any different than the past?”
Dover police picked up Luke early Sunday on warrants for allegedly ignoring conditions of his February pre-trial release in the aggravated assault case.
He is accused of violating those terms by continuing to have contact with S.H., by allegedly committing simple assault in April by placing his hands on her neck and face, and by failing to turn himself as ordered.
Dover police added charges of resisting arrest and giving a false identity. Videos shared on social media of Sunday’s violent arrest have spurred protests against the police, and prompted the state Attorney General’s Office to investigate. Three Dover officers have been placed on paid leave.
Since New Jersey’s bail reform law eliminated cash bail, pre-trial incarceration now is imposed only under rare circumstances.
Luke should continue being held, argued Chief Assistant Prosecutor John McNamara, because he poses a danger to S.H., and because he has flouted past court orders and is likely to flee.
“Clearly, the relationship between S.H. and Mr. Luke is complicated. There is a child involved,” McNamara said.
Luke violated terms of his pre-trial release almost immediately in February, by shoplifting in Morristown and by underaged consumption of alcohol, McNamara said. The simple assault charge followed in April.
He is charged with at least five offenses since he turned 18. Before that, Luke was in family court as a juvenile on at least five matters, the prosecutor said.
“What sort of trust should this court afford Cyprian Luke?” McNamara asked.
Cervenak, the public defender, suggested Luke may have failed to answer warrants because he briefly was homeless. She said he also suffers from post traumatic stress disorder, underwent therapy as a youth, and needs treatment for a condition she shared privately with the judge.
The public defender further asserted that S.H.’s 911 call in April included no mention of Luke manhandling her, nor did subsequent police reports note any injuries.
Luke began the hearing smiling at the little girl, and thumbing through what appeared to be a Bible.
At times, he looked jittery, with his manacled feet bouncing rapidly up and down beneath the witness table. At other points, he rested his head on the table.
Luke sat impassively through S.H.’s outburst.
“I love you, baby!” the woman called out later, as sheriff’s officers prepared to return Luke to jail.