NEWARK, N.J. – A suspect in the execution-style killings of three college students in a New Jersey schoolyard in 2007 pleaded guilty Tuesday, days before his trial was set to begin.
Melvin Jovel, 21, pleaded guilty to three counts of murder, one count of attempted murder and weapons charges in the Newark attacks.
Prosecutors said Jovel and five other young men lined up Iofemi Hightower and Dashon Harvey, both 20, and 18-year-old Terrance Aeriel, against a schoolyard wall and shot each of them in the back of the head.
A fourth victim, who survived, testified at the first trial in the case that she was sexually assaulted, slashed with a machete and shot in the head. She is not being identified by The Associated Press because of the sexual assault charge.
"With this guilty plea today, the victim and the surviving family members are spared one trial and Mr. Jovel will spend the rest of his life behind bars," said Essex County Assistant Prosecutor Thomas McTigue. "We can now move on with the prosecution of the remaining cases."
The other four defendants are in jail awaiting trial.
Jovel faces up to life in prison when he is sentenced on Nov. 4. His lawyer, Joseph Krakora of the New Jersey Office of the Public Defender, declined to comment on the plea.
Prosecutors have portrayed the killings as an initiation ritual for members of the Central American gang MS-13. They say Jovel and at least two of the other suspects had lived in an apartment complex in Newark's Ivy Hill section across the street from the scene of the murders.
Prosecutors say the four victims, who attended or planned to attend Delaware State University, were hanging out listening to music in the schoolyard behind the Mount Vernon school on the night of Aug. 4, 2007, when they were approached by the suspects, who robbed them and forced them to lie on the ground.
Soon after, according to testimony of the survivor, three of them were led down a set of stairs and shot. The survivor said she saw Jovel's picture on TV while she was recovering in the hospital and remembered him as the person who shot her as he ran away from the scene.
The publicity surrounding the killings focused national attention on violent crime in New Jersey's largest city and jump-started anti-crime initiatives.
The killings also prompted state officials to give police the authority to refer violent crime suspects' names to immigration authorities if they are suspected of being in the country illegally, a response to the fact that one of the suspects was free on bail for other crimes despite being an illegal immigrant.
Several of the suspects are Latin American immigrants of differing immigration status. Prosecutors said Tuesday that it wasn't clear whether Jovel, who was from Honduras, is in the United States legally or illegally.
Earlier this year, a jury convicted Rodolfo Godinez, a legal immigrant from Nicaragua, and sentenced him to three consecutive life sentences for the killings.
Godinez was not tied to the gun or machete used in the attacks but was convicted under New Jersey's accomplice liability law. His lawyer plans to appeal.