Prosecutor: Triple murder in NJ schoolyard carried out to test mettle of aspiring gang member

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Prosecutor: NJ schoolyard deaths part of gang test

NEWARK, N.J. — The execution-style slayings of three friends in a New Jersey schoolyard nearly three years ago were carried out to test the mettle of an aspiring gang member, a prosecutor told jury members Wednesday as the first trial stemming from the attacks neared a conclusion.

Four of the six defendants were summoned to the Mount Vernon School playground on the night of Aug. 4, 2007, by defendant Rodolfo Godinez “because he saw the opportunity of soft targets in an isolated area,” Essex County Assistant Prosecutor Thomas McTigue said during closing arguments.

McTigue focused on Godinez’s statement to authorities in Maryland, where he was arrested two weeks after the killings, in which Godinez told police he was a ranking member of MS-13, the El Salvadoran-based street gang. The statement was played for jurors during the trial.

Godinez told police that on the night of the murders, there was communication between the suspects about whether one of them, known as Shaka — a nickname for co-defendant Jose Carranza — “had heart,” McTigue said.

Godinez, who was at the schoolyard with another suspect for about 45 minutes before four others showed up, helped target the victims, McTigue said.

“You don’t just wander in off the street to that schoolyard,” he said. “You can’t see the victims, you don’t know who you’re targeting. Someone has to spot the target for you.”

Defense attorney Roy Greenman objected to the characterization and pointed out that prosecutors offered no proof of phone calls or texting between the suspects. He characterized the attacks as spontaneous, a robbery gone awry that Godinez admittedly was present for but didn’t orchestrate or take part in beyond collecting the victims’ wallets and IDs.

But Godinez’s statement contained so many distortions and obvious lies — he claimed one victim was a Bloods gang member, for instance — that it shouldn’t be taken seriously, Greenman told jurors.

“Obviously Mr. Godinez wasn’t going to tell police who the real perpetrators were, out of fear or loyalty,” Greenman said. “So he ends up telling a story that makes no sense, yet the state is going to argue to you that this statement is proof of his guilt.”

State Superior Court Judge Michael Ravin was scheduled to give the jury instructions Thursday morning before the panel began deliberations.

Killed were Dashon Harvey and Iofemi Hightower, both 20, and Terrance Aeriel, 18. A woman, then 19, was shot in the head and slashed with a machete but survived and testified at the trial. The Associated Press is not identifying her because two other defendants were charged with sexual assault.

Harvey, Aeriel and the 19-year-old attended Delaware State University. Hightower had planned to attend Delaware State for the fall semester.

The survivor and Hightower suffered slash wounds from a machete. During his arguments Wednesday, McTigue held up the 18-inch-long weapon next to an autopsy photo depicting Hightower’s extensive injuries.

“Notice the weapon, notice the damage in that photo,” McTigue said. “This photo is shocking, ladies and gentlemen, but it’s evidential.”

The only physical evidence that ties Godinez to the crime scene was his DNA on a beer bottle found at the playground. Prosecutors acknowledged that other defendants wielded the machete and fired the gun that night, though McTigue told the jury they could convict Godinez of the crimes as an accomplice.

will not be displayed