NEWARK, N.J. (CBSNewYork/AP) – The final defendant convicted in a brutal schoolyard attack that killed three college-bound friends and left a fourth seriously wounded was sentenced Wednesday to 195 years in prison.
Gerardo Gomez was one of six men and boys who pleaded guilty or were convicted in the execution-style murders in a Newark school playground in 2007.
Gomez was convicted last November on multiple counts including robbery, murder and attempted murder.
Defense attorney Michael Robbins argued at sentencing that Gomez, who was 15 when the murders happened, should receive a shorter sentence because he was a minor and because he didn’t wield a knife or gun used in the attacks.
Robbins had argued that Gomez was a bystander at the Mount Vernon School playground, but prosecutors contended that he never tried to leave the scene and acted as a lookout while the victims were robbed.
After robbing the four, the defendants led three of them – Iofemi Hightower, Dashon Harvey and Terrance Aeriel – down a set of steps and forced them to kneel against a wall before shooting them execution-style in the back of the head, according to the suspects’ statements and the survivor’s testimony.
Franciscan Sister Antonelle Chunka had been counselling Gomez since the murders and said he felt sorrow for his involvement in the attacks.
“He just was in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people,” Chunka told WCBS 880’s Levon Putney. “Who wished he wasn’t there and that he wasn’t a part of it all.”
Gomez said no when asked if he wanted to speak in court at sentencing, though Chunka said he had written letters to the victims’ families.
“If you really repent, if you have an ounce of sorrow in your heart, this was the opportune time to express that,” Dashon Harvey’s father James told Putney following sentencing.
Five years later, there were still plenty of tears at the courthouse.
“It never goes away,” said Iofemi’s mother Shalga Hightower.
In a previous trial, the lone survivor of the attack testified that she was sexually assaulted, slashed with a machete and shot in the head.
Prosecutors said several of the defendants were engaging in an initiation ritual for members of the MS-13 street gang. The men did not know the victims, prosecutors said in earlier trials of the defendants.
The four victims, who attended or planned to attend Delaware State University, were hanging out listening to music behind the school on the night of Aug. 4, 2007, when they were approached by the suspects, who robbed them and forced them to lie on the ground before shooting them, according to prosecutors.
The publicity surrounding the killings focused national attention on violent crime in New Jersey’s largest city and jump-started anti-crime initiatives. The killings also led state officials to grant police the authority to refer violent crime suspects’ names to immigration authorities if they are suspected of being in the country illegally.
Gomez’s conviction isn’t the final legal proceeding stemming from the killings. A lawsuit filed by the victims’ families, accusing the school district of negligence for leaving the playground open at night when it was a known gang hangout, is in jury selection this week.
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