NEWARK, N.J. — The first defendant to be tried for a triple schoolyard killing that jolted New Jersey’s largest city into addressing its crime problem nearly three years ago was convicted on all counts Monday.
Rodolfo Godinez, a Nicaraguan who was one of six men and boys charged with the brutal slayings, was convicted on all 17 counts. A jury returned the verdict in state Superior Court after nearly four hours of deliberations.
The killings of Dashon Harvey, Iofemi Hightower and Terrance Aeriel spurred a wave of anti-crime measures in Newark, from jump-starting a surveillance camera project to expanding access to gun-trace data.
A fourth victim survived and testified against Godinez. She is not being identified by The Associated Press because of sexual assault charges against two other defendants. All four victims were enrolled or about to be enrolled at Delaware State University.
Family members of the victims wept and rubbed one another’s backs quietly as the verdict was read. Earlier, when it was announced the jury had reached a verdict, several of them gasped and started clapping. The judge warned the gallery to stay calm once the verdict was read.
“When I first found out my son was attacked and killed in a schoolyard playground, I blamed it on the parents” who don’t teach children right from wrong, said Dashon Harvey’s father, James Harvey. “When you let them run astray, these are the types of things that can happen to any child.”
The three victims were found slumped against a wall of the playground, each having suffered a gunshot wound to the back of the head. Hightower and the survivor also were slashed with a machete.
The six defendants in the case are being tried separately.
Attorney General Paula Dow called the Godinez’ verdict; “just one of six pieces of a cold-blooded puzzle, that shocked this city, this state, this nation three years ago.”
Without a wealth of physical evidence tying Godinez to the scene – he left DNA on a beer bottle at the playground but wasn’t tied to the gun or knife used in the attacks – prosecutors used statements Godinez made to police and to a jailhouse acquaintance that appeared to implicate him.
Before deliberations, state Superior Court Judge Michael Ravin instructed jurors that, under New Jersey’s accomplice liability statute, they could find Godinez guilty of the murders even though there was no evidence presented that he pulled the trigger.
Godinez’s attorney, Roy Greenman, had argued his client was at the scene but didn’t take part in the attacks.
Godinez will be sentenced July 8 and could spend the rest of his life in prison.
The publicity surrounding the killings jump-started an effort to buy and install surveillance cameras and a gunshot-detection system in the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods.
State officials also gave police the authority to refer violent crime suspects’ names to immigration authorities if they were suspected of being in the country illegally, a response to the fact that one of the six suspects was free on bail for other crimes despite being an illegal immigrant.
Other changes followed, including the instituting of penalties for gun owners who fail to report lost or stolen weapons and a first-of-its-kind agreement to allow all New Jersey municipalities access to a federal gun-tracing database.