N.J. triple murder victims' kin prepare for final trial

October 3, 2012 2:42:36 AM PDT
In a Newark courtroom this week, 12 jurors and a packed gallery will hear how four college-bound friends gathered at a schoolyard one summer night to drink sodas and listen to music, their young lives full of promise and potential.

Then they'll hear about the aftermath, the carnage that followed: Three of the four friends slumped against a wall where they'd been forced to kneel, pools of blood surrounding their bodies; deep slash marks from a machete crisscrossing one victim's head and face.

Six suspects were arrested within two weeks of the murders. Three have been convicted at trial with the help of testimony from the survivor, who has earned a college degree since the attacks. Two other defendants have pleaded guilty.

Opening statements are expected Thursday morning in the trial of Gerardo Gomez, who turned 15 on the night of the slayings but is being tried as an adult, as were two other juveniles.

In the more than five years since Shalga Hightower lost her daughter, Iofemi, in the brutal slayings in this violence-scarred city, she and the other victims' families have doggedly sat through three lengthy trials as well as hearings, guilty pleas and sentencings almost too numerous to count.

United by unspeakable tragedy, they vowed early on to see the process all the way through, no matter how painful.

"It's without a doubt something we talked about from the beginning," Hightower said Tuesday. "We stuck it out this long because we had to as parents; those were our children. And, because we needed to see for ourselves how the justice system works and that justice would be served."

At the time of her death, 20-year-old Iofemi Hightower was working two jobs and considering attending at Delaware State University, where the other three were already enrolled. Dashon Harvey, also 20, was a social work major who fancied himself a fashion maven; 18-year-old Terrance "T.J." Aeriel was already an ordained minister.

A fourth victim who survived being shot and stabbed is not being named by The Associated Press because of sexual assault charges against two of the defendants.

They were the type of kids any parent could be proud of, but particularly in a city where so many have been lost to the lure of the streets. That fact jolted the city, which had reached a 10-year high in murders the year before.

If earlier trials are an indication, there will be graphic descriptions of wounds suffered by all four victims, and photos of each. Hightower has left the court in tears as the slashing wounds to her daughter have been described, but has always returned.

The families' resolve has made a deep impression on the prosecutors who have worked on the case since 2007.

"It's been a long and complicated case, and over a period of five years, over every step, those families were there to bear witness for their loved ones," First Assistant Prosecutor Thomas McTigue said. "It's very unusual and very touching to see that. If there's ever any doubt about why you're doing this job, all you need to do is look out in the gallery."

The emotional toll hasn't been the only cost borne by Shalga Hightower. She said she lost her job in 2008 due to frequent absences to attend court hearings, and later was evicted from her home in nearby Irvington.

She said she has a new job and a new home in Newark, and said although she wouldn't change what she's done the last five years, it will be a relief when the last trial is over and she can get her life back.

"People ask, 'You're still going through this?'" she said. "I've actually had people say to me, 'You have to let it go.' I tell them it's not that I haven't tried to or don't want to; I can't move on because this is 2012 and I'm still stuck in '07, and I'm still going through this."


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