Investigators testify in NJ schoolyard killings

May 11, 2010 5:21:34 PM PDT
Four college-bound friends who were gunned down in a Newark schoolyard in 2007 were shot with the same weapon, but it took investigators more than 2 1/2 years to order tests on bullet fragments removed from the lone survivor, investigators testified Tuesday in the trial of one of six suspects in the killings. Nicaraguan national Rodolfo Godinez is the first of six defendants to be tried in a case in which prosecutors contend four friends were lined up against a wall at Newark's Mount Vernon School on a weekend night and shot execution-style.

Godinez faces murder, felony murder, robbery and weapons charges.

Dashon Harvey and Iofemi Hightower, both 20, and 18-year-old Terrance "T.J." Aeriel were slain. The surviving victim is not being named by The Associated Press because two defendants are charged with sexual assault.

Detective Kevin Green of the Essex County Prosecutor's Office acknowledged during testimony Tuesday that he realized in April of this year, while reviewing the case with prosecutors who were preparing for Godinez's trial, that bullet fragments removed from the surviving victim had not been initially tested with evidence taken from the crime scene and from the deceased victims.

"You knew she was shot, you knew she was having surgery, you didn't think to ask for the bullet fragments?" asked Godinez's attorney, Roy Greenman. "You didn't think to retrieve them from the hospital for 2 years and 8 months? Yes or no?"

"I can't answer that yes or no," Green said, adding he immediately ordered the tests when he realized they had never been done.

It's not clear what role that information will play in the trial, although defense attorney Greenman seized on the oversight, as well as a recorded statement taken from a neighbor that was lost by police. The neighbor, who had to be re-interviewed, testified to hearing gunshots and seeing men run away from the scene.

Detectives from Suffolk County, N.Y., testified earlier Tuesday that they found a .357 Magnum handgun during a search of a home in Bay Shore, Long Island, in 2008. That gun, they said, was later determined through ballistics to have been used to shoot all four victims in Newark.

The weapon has not been linked to Godinez, although his DNA was found on a beer bottle recovered at the scene, according to previous expert testimony.

The schoolyard killings brought worldwide attention to violent crime in New Jersey's largest city. After the killings, Newark jump-started efforts to install surveillance cameras in dangerous neighborhoods, instituted penalties for gun owners who fail to report lost or stolen weapons and set up an agreement to give New Jersey municipalities access to a federal gun-tracing database.

By the end of 2008, Newark's murder rate had dropped by nearly 40 percent from two years earlier, though it rose slightly last year.