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Court Tosses Statement In Newark Schoolyard Slayings

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From left: Victims Terrence Aeriel, Ioefemi Hightower and Dashon Harvey (credit: CBS)

From left: Victims Terrence Aeriel, Ioefemi Hightower and Dashon Harvey (credit: CBS)

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) – A statement given to police by one of the juveniles charged in the execution-style slayings of three college students in 2007 is not admissible because he wasn’t adequately informed of his Miranda rights, a state appeals court ruled Monday.

The three-judge panel’s ruling reversed a lower court’s decision and clouded the case against Gerardo Gomez, who marked his 15th birthday on Aug. 4, 2007, the night that produced one of the most heinous crimes in recent memory in violence-plagued Newark.

The Essex County Prosecutor’s Office immediately said it would appeal the ruling to the state Supreme Court.

“We have the utmost respect for the Appellate Division but we strenuously disagree with this ruling, which essentially prevents our prosecution team from using Gerardo Gomez’s statement in court when he is tried in connection with the Newark schoolyard slaying case,” Catherine Carter, a spokeswoman for the office, said Monday. ‘We will ask New Jersey’s highest court to review the decision.”

Gomez and five others ranging in age from 16 to 28 at the time are charged with killing Iofemi Hightower, 20; 18-year-old Terrance Aeriel and 20-year-old Dashon Harvey. The three were lined up in front of a wall and each shot in the back of the head behind Newark’s Mount Vernon School after being robbed.

A fourth victim, whom the Associated Press is not identifying because of sexual assault charges against two of the suspects, survived with gunshot and stab wounds and helped authorities identify two of the suspects.

Her testimony earlier this year helped prosecutors convict defendant Rodolfo Godinez, who is serving three consecutive life sentences for the killings. The other defendants are in jail awaiting trial.

Monday’s ruling focused on conversations police had with Gomez and his mother in the early morning hours of Aug. 8, 2007; Gomez was not a suspect initially, but police brought him in for questioning when they found him at a Newark apartment while searching for 28-year-old suspect Jose Carranza, according to court papers.

State law requires that juveniles questioned by police have a parent or guardian present, and Gomez’s mother was present when he allegedly admitted being at the schoolyard on the night of the killings.

But she was shown a printed Miranda form in Spanish that had 18 typographical errors on it, according to the court, and she apparently understood the rights but was not clear on whether she and her son could have an attorney present.

At that point, according to a videotape of the session cited by the court, the detective said in part, “I am not telling you that you don’t have to get an attorney. But if he wants to tell me what happened, he has to sign the paper, do you understand me?”

The appeals court ruled that the detective’s reply “deflects the question, and instead turns the discussion to the desirability of her son providing a statement to police.”

The court also held that when Gomez initially shook his head when a different detective asked if he wanted to make a statement, the questioning should have ceased.

“The magnitude of the tragedy in that Newark schoolyard should not be permitted to diminish young Mr. Gomez’s constitutional rights,” Gomez’s attorney, Michael Robbins, said Monday. “It is the highest goal of our system of justice to ensure full and fair consideration and protection for all defendants, even to those that some may deem ‘unworthy’ of such consideration and protection.”

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

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