NEWARK, N.J. – A prosecutor on Tuesday described the systematic attack on four college-age friends at a school playground in 2007 that left three dead and one grievously wounded in a crime that horrified a city familiar with violence.
"They were marched down, lined up against a wall, and they were each killed, efficiently and methodically by a single shot to the base of the skull," Essex County Assistant Prosecutor Thomas McTigue said during opening statements in the trial of Rodolfo Godinez, the first of six defendants to come to trial.
Killed were Dashon Harvey and Iofemi Hightower, both 20, and Terrance Aeriel, 18. A fourth victim, a woman who was 19 at the time of the attack, was shot and stabbed but survived and is expected to testify Wednesday when the trial resumes. The Associated Press is not identifying her because two other defendants were charged with sexual assault.
Harvey, Aeriel and the 19-year-old were friends who attended Delaware State University and lived in Newark, a city that has become a symbol of urban crime and blight since it was rocked by riots in the late 1960s. Hightower had enrolled at Delaware State for the fall semester.
The survivor "was also marched to her death that night, but she cheated death," McTigue said Tuesday. "She will come before you, and she'll tell you what she remembers through the pain and trauma of that night."
Using the survivor's statements, McTigue described for the jury an evening that began with the four friends driving to a school playground around 10 p.m. to socialize and listen to music.
They noticed two men drinking beer at the playground when they arrived, but they parked their car away from them and sat on some bleachers with the car radio playing.
"For a while, everything was normal, as it should be on a warm summer evening," McTigue said. "Then, at 11:30 and 15 seconds, things changed."
That's when Terrance Aeriel, known as T.J., texted the woman that "it's time to go," after he saw four more men show up at the playground. By the time police received a 911 call 10 minutes later, the friends had been forced to lie on the ground and surrender their money and cell phones, McTigue said. The three were then taken down a set of stairs to a wall next to the school and shot, he said.
The woman was sexually assaulted and cut with a knife, the prosecutor said. She ran screaming and was shot in the head, he said.
During opening statements, defense attorney Roy Greenman said Godinez was at the playground that night but didn't participate in the attack. The woman couldn't identify Godinez even though he was one of the first two people she saw when she arrived at the playground, he said.
She also identified other defendants as the ones who did the shooting and wielded a machete later linked to the attack, Greenman said.
While not minimizing the horrific nature of the crimes, Greenman said, "reasonable doubt is all over the place. The state is counting on your emotions to be so inflamed that you will lose your reason and want to punish somebody for what happened. I ask you to please fight that urge."
The suspects were between 15 and 28 years old at the time of the killings, and the three juveniles arrested will be tried as adults. All six suspects face murder, felony murder, robbery and weapons counts in addition to the sexual assault charges against Jose Carranza, the oldest defendant, and Shahid Baskerville, who was 15 at the time.
Prosecutors plan to put a gang expert on the witness stand who will testify about MS-13, the El Salvadoran-rooted gang that Godinez admitted belonging to when he was arrested in Maryland two weeks after the killings. In pretrial hearings, McTigue appeared to be laying the groundwork for a theory that the slayings were part of a gang initiation rather than a random robbery gone awry.
After the killings, Newark jump-started efforts to install surveillance cameras in dangerous neighborhoods, instituted penalties for gun owners who fail to report lost or stolen weapons and set up an agreement to give New Jersey municipalities access to a federal gun-tracing database.
By the end of 2008, Newark's murder rate had dropped by nearly 40 percent from two years earlier, though it rose slightly last year.