Not guilty pleas in college student murders

April 24, 2008 12:12:57 PM PDT
Two teens charged with murder in the slaying of three college students in a Newark schoolyard last summer made their first appearance in adult court on Thursday and pleaded not guilty. If convicted, the youths and four other suspects could get life terms for the execution-style shootings that brought outrage and scrutiny to a city struggling to shake its reputation for violence. A fourth student survived.

Shahid Baskerville, 16, of Morristown, and Gerardo Gomez, 15, of Newark, stood silently for much of the 15-minute hearing, shackled at the wrists and ankles and flanked by sheriff's officers. About 20 relatives and friends of the victims observed.

The teens answered "yes" when state Superior Court Judge Donald J. Volkert Jr. instructed them to ask their lawyers whenever they did not understand what was happening.

Volkert continued their bails at $1 million each. The boys are being held in juvenile facilities. They were waived up from juvenile court on Friday.

The two teens each face three counts of murder and a dozen other charges, including weapons offenses. They are each accused of possessing a handgun and a machete during the killings.

Baskerville also is charged with three counts of aggravated sexual assault and one count of aggravated criminal sexual contact.

The sex charges all relate to one of the four victims, whom prosecutors declined to identify.

The case is to be presented to a grand jury this summer for possible indictments, First Assistant Essex County Prosecutor Carolyn A. Murray said after the hearing.

Both Gomez and Baskerville were 15 at the time of the shootings, she said. They were arrested within two weeks of the shootings as were the other suspects: Alexander Alfaro, who was 16 at the time; Alfaro's half brother, Rodolfo Godinez, then 24; Jose Carranza, then 28; and Melvin Jovel, then 24. They have all pleaded not guilty.

Reached later by phone, Gomez lawyer Michael A. Robbins said, "This tragedy did not occur at his hand."

"It appears from the facts as we now know them to be that responsibility for this terrible tragedy lies not with this child.

We have believed that the interests of justice will have been properly, fairly and adequately served had this matter remained in the family courts," Robbins said.

Baskerville lawyer Paul A. Bini declined to comment.

Authorities have said the crime began as a robbery, but Assistant Essex County Prosecutor Thomas McTigue declined Thursday to discuss possible motives pending a presentation to a grand jury.

The six suspects are accused of murdering 20-year-old Iofemi Hightower, 18-year-old Terrance Aeriel and 20-year-old Dashon Harvey on the night of Aug. 4 in a playground behind the Mount Vernon School. The three victims were ordered to kneel against a wall and were each shot in the head, authorities said.

Aeriel's sister, Natasha, 19 at the time, survived a gunshot wound to the head and was able to help authorities identify some of the suspects.

The Aeriels and Harvey were students at Delaware State University, while Hightower was in the process of enrolling there for the fall semester.