MAYS LANDING, N.J. - Jessica Kisby was the star witness in the Taj Mahal kidnapping-murder case that concluded Thursday, but she clearly was not a favorite of even the prosecution.
In closing arguments before an Atlantic County jury, First Assistant County Prosecutor James McClain described Kisby, 26, as a "coldhearted, cold-blooded murderer." But in a dramatic summation that capped the 10-day trial, McClain told the jury, "At the time she testified, she was one of two coldhearted, cold-blooded murderers in the courtroom. . . . The other was . . . Craig Arno."
Arno, 46, faces murder, kidnapping, carjacking, arson, and related charges that could result in a life sentence.
The career criminal - he has four previous convictions and has spent more than 10 years in prison - took the stand in his defense Monday, denying he had anything to do with the killing of Martin Caballero, who was abducted from the parking garage of the Trump Taj Mahal Casino Hotel on May 21, 2010.
Eric Shenkus, the public defender representing Arno, argued that Kisby was responsible for the killing and that she later implicated Arno, her boyfriend, in order to cut a deal with the government.
Shenkus said Kisby was smug and callous while testifying about the crime, which he called "horrendous."
"This is not about what happened to Martin Caballero," he told the jury, "but about who is responsible."
Caballero's wife, daughter, and other relatives sat in one row of the courtroom Thursday. The North Jersey grocer had gone to Atlantic City with his wife, daughter, and friends to celebrate his daughter's 22d birthday. His wife, Libia Martinez, testified she last saw her husband alive when he dropped her off at the front of the casino-hotel and headed for the parking garage.
Arno and Kisby were charged with abducting Caballero from the garage, stabbing him to death, dumping his body along a dirt farm road, then using his ATM card to withdraw $300. They later set fire to Caballero's car, a white 2009 Lincoln MKS that had caught their eye.
Kisby testified for the government after pleading guilty to murder and kidnapping charges on Feb. 14. She will be sentenced to 30 years in prison with no parole eligibility under the terms of her plea bargain.
Judge Michael Donio began charging the jury on the law Thursday afternoon. He is expected to complete the charge Friday morning, after which jury deliberations will begin.
Arno faces 28 criminal counts tied to the murder-kidnapping and subsequent offenses.
Though the prosecution's case was built on Kisby's testimony, it included extensive video-surveillance evidence, including footage of Kisby and a man believed to be Arno confronting Caballero in the parking garage and driving away in his car.
Other surveillance cameras that night showed Arno making a withdrawal from a drive-through ATM machine with Caballero's bank card and Kisby at an Exxon station buying a five-gallon can of gasoline that authorities say was used to torch Caballero's car after they drove it to Gloucester Township.
Another camera recorded Kisby trying to shoplift medical supplies from a K-mart to treat burns Arno had suffered as he set the car on fire.
The K-mart video also showed a man witnesses identified as Arno wielding a knife and confronting store security personnel who tried to block Kisby from leaving.
Both lawyers referred in their closing arguments to the videos, which had been shown to the jury earlier in the trial.
Shenkus argued that Kisby's story didn't match timelines developed from those recorded events, and he hinted another boyfriend was involved in the killing.
"Miss Kisby has spun a terrific tale that doesn't match the facts," he said.
Shenkus asked the jury to accept his client's version, conceding that Arno was guilty of the arson and evidence-tampering charges connected with burning the car.
In his testimony, Arno admitted torching Caballero's car, but he said he did so only after Kisby, his girlfriend, came to him and said she had a problem and had to get rid of the vehicle. Arno denied any involvement in the Caballero's killing.
McClain argued that Kisby and Arno were "cornered by the evidence." Kisby, he argued, told the truth in order to avoid spending the rest of her life in prison. If there had been another man involved "she would have given him up . . . to lessen her well-deserved punishment."
He said Arno and Kisby were "out for themselves." The difference, he said, was that Arno offered the jury "the biggest lie he could think of" while Kisby depended on the truth.
McClain described the couple, who were arrested at a seedy motel outside Atlantic City on May 28 after botching an attempt to steal a car and flee the city, as a pair of "evil pinballs bouncing this way and that" through a series of ill-conceived and senseless crimes.
"These were no criminal masterminds," he said.