Jury begins deliberations in NJ schoolyard murders

May 20, 2010 5:21:26 PM PDT
A jury in the first trial stemming from a brutal triple murder that mobilized anti-crime efforts in Newark failed to reach a verdict Thursday and offered hints of dissension within the first hours of deliberations.

The panel of eight women and four men is weighing the evidence against Rodolfo Godinez, one of six men and boys charged with attacking the three friends, and a fourth victim who survived, with a machete and robbing them before lining them up in front of a wall and shooting them in the back of the head.

The killings in August 2007 struck a nerve in a city used to violent crime, chiefly because the victims were college students and not involved in gangs or the drug trade. In the wake of the killings, the city implemented anti-crime measures that have been credited with lowering the murder rate by more than 30 percent.

Friends and families of victims Dashon Harvey, Iofemi Hightower and Terrance Aeriel looked on from the gallery Thursday as they have each day since the trial began on April 27. The Associated Press is not naming the survivor because of sexual assault charges against two defendants.

Godinez is charged with 17 counts including robbery, conspiracy, murder and weapons offenses, and the breadth and nature of the charges prompted state Superior Court Michael Ravin to spend more than two hours giving instructions to the jury Thursday morning.

Within minutes of retiring to the jury room after lunch, jurors sent Ravin a note requesting a copy of his instructions. Not long after, they sent a note telling the judge there was "a very serious issue" with a female juror who was "saying we are not going to vote on the issues."

Ravin responded by sending them back to the jury room to address the dispute, and the panel finished the day without reaching a verdict.

The jury must consider complex legal concepts in judging Godinez' guilt since no physical evidence was offered that tied him to the machete or gun used in the attacks.

In his instructions, Ravin explained at length that state law allows a jury to convict a defendant as an accomplice even if he did not specifically commit the acts alleged.

Conspiracy, too, does not require a verbal agreement to be considered criminal, he said, but can result from a conspirator's unspoken assent.

Prosecutors have painted Godinez as a ranking member of the MS-13 street gang who orchestrated the attacks as a test for an aspiring member, while Godinez' attorney has contended his client was at the playground that night but had limited participation in the killings.

Deliberations are scheduled to resume Monday.