First Newark Schoolyard Trial Gets Conviction

The families of the three brutally murdered young people were satisfied and relieved that Roldolfo Godinez was found guilty. The trial was a long time coming since August 2007, when three college friends were slaughtered on a schoolyard by a group of MS-13 gangsters.

It is a good outcome in particular because the evidence linking Godinez to the actual murders was weak compared with the other accused. Yet he was found guilty on all 17 counts, including murder, felony murder, robbery and weapons violations.

Man Is Convicted in Newark School Murders, New York Times, May 24, 2010

NEWARK — In the first trial stemming from the shootings of four college-age friends in a schoolyard here nearly three years ago, a jury on Monday returned guilty verdicts for three murders and one attempted murder after less than a day of deliberations.

The jury in State Superior Court, in Newark, convicted Rodolfo Godinez, a 26-year-old gang member and native of Nicaragua, of all the charges facing him, including multiple counts of robbery, weapons charges and conspiracy. Each murder count carries a minimum penalty of 30 years to life in prison, and the sentences can be given consecutively.

“This man will never see the light of day,” the acting Essex County prosecutor, Robert D. Laurino, said.

As the jury foreman, a slender, middle-aged man, read the verdicts, several of the victims’ family members clutched one another, as some nearby wept silently. Shalga Hightower, the mother of one of the murder victims, Iofemi Hightower, shook visibly throughout the proceeding.

James Harvey, the father of another victim, Dashon Harvey, said afterward: “It’s truly a blessing from God. It’s to send a message to youth — ‘Do you really want to join a gang? This is what comes of it.’ ”

Mr. Harvey said it was gratifying to see Mr. Godinez “coming into court with a smirk on his face, and for us to have the last laugh.”

As the verdict was read, Mr. Godinez stared straight ahead impassively, his hands clasped in front of him, not turning to look at the jury. Judge Michael Ravin scheduled his sentencing for July 8.

Mr. Godinez’s lawyer, Roy Greenman, said, “Obviously, there will be an appeal on a number of grounds.” He declined to elaborate.

After three weeks of testimony, lawyers’ statements and instructions from the judge, the jurors began deliberations on Thursday afternoon. Judge Ravin gave them Friday off, and shortly after returning to court on Monday morning, they sent word that they had reached verdicts.

Prosecutors did not assert that Mr. Godinez, one of six defendants in the case, was the person who hacked at some of the victims with a machete, or the one who shot each of them, execution-style, in the back of the head with a .357-caliber Colt Trooper revolver. But they described him as a member and recruiter for the violent street gang to which the attackers belonged and as the one who summoned some of the others to the schoolyard on the night of Aug. 4, 2007, to instigate the attack.

Mr. Godinez came to the United States at age 9, probably illegally, and later gained legal residency, the authorities have said. At least one of the defendants is in this country illegally, and the status of another is unclear. Critics of United States immigration policy pointed to the schoolyard killings as evidence of a need for tougher enforcement.

At the time of the shootings, Mr. Godinez had been a fugitive for four years, after jumping bail on assault, robbery and weapons charges.

Interesting how the New York Times took pains to specify that Godinez was no longer illegal, “authorities have said.” More details would be welcome to make the claim more credible. And why was he given bail for violent crimes when he was a clear flight risk? Illegal aliens certainly live under a more permissive version of law enforcement than citizens.

The emotional high point of the trial came when the surviving victim, Natasha Aeriel, took the witness stand to describe the night when she, her brother Terrance Aeriel, Ms. Hightower and Mr. Harvey gathered behind the Mount Vernon elementary school to chat and listen to music. Ms. Aeriel recounted being sexually molested and slashed with a machete, hearing the shots that killed her brother and friends, and then being shot herself.

Troy Bradshaw, the Aeriels’ father, said after the verdict, “It’s still heavy on my heart.” He added that he had immense pride in his daughter, who might have to testify five more times.

That’s right. The families have endured one trial with five more to go. At least they have their faith and each other to lean on for emotional support.

Below, family members remarked on the verdict.

James Harvey with his wife Mary by his side reacts to Godinez verdict
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