Kin ready for last trial in NJ schoolyard killings

Published 11:09 am Wednesday, October 3, 2012

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — In a Newark courtroom this week, jurors and a packed gallery will hear how four college-bound friends gathered at a schoolyard one summer night five years ago to drink sodas and listen to music, their young lives full of promise and potential.

Then they’ll hear about the aftermath, the carnage — three of the four friends slumped against a wall where they’d been forced to kneel before being shot, pools of blood surrounding their bodies, deep slash marks from a machete crisscrossing one victim’s head and face.

Now, in the sixth year of proceedings in the case, the victims’ families will be back in court to hear every painful detail recounted yet again, fulfilling a vow to “bear witness for their loved ones,” as a prosecutor put it, no matter how much it hurt.

Opening statements are expected Thursday in the murder trial of the sixth and final defendant, Gerardo Gomez, who turned 15 on the night of the killings but is being tried as an adult, as were two other juveniles. Three defendants were convicted at trial with the help of testimony from the survivor, who has earned a college degree since the attacks. Two others pleaded guilty, one to reduced charges.

In the years since Shalga Hightower lost her daughter, Iofemi, in murders that shocked even this violence-scarred city, she and the other victims’ families have doggedly sat through three lengthy trials as well as hearings, guilty pleas and sentencings almost too numerous to count.

United by unspeakable tragedy, they promised early on to see the process all the way through.

“It’s without a doubt something we talked about from the beginning,” Hightower said Tuesday. “We stuck it out this long because we had to as parents; those were our children. And because we needed to see for ourselves how the justice system works and that justice would be served.”

At the time of her death, 20-year-old Iofemi Hightower was working two jobs and considering attending at Delaware State University, where the other three were already enrolled. Dashon Harvey, also 20, was a social work major who fancied himself a fashion maven; 18-year-old Terrance “T.J.” Aeriel was already an ordained minister.

A fourth victim who survived being shot and stabbed is not being named by The Associated Press because of sexual assault charges against two of the defendants.

They were the type of kids any parent could be proud of, but particularly in a city where so many have been lost to the lure of the streets. That fact jolted the city, which had reached a 10-year high in murders the year before.

If earlier trials are an indication, there will be graphic descriptions of wounds suffered by all four victims in the robbery murders and photos of each. Hightower has left the court in tears as the slashing wounds to her daughter have been described, but she has always returned.

The families’ resolve has made a deep impression on the prosecutors who have worked on the case since 2007.

“It’s been a long and complicated case, and over a period of five years, over every step, those families were there to bear witness for their loved ones,” First Assistant Prosecutor Thomas McTigue said. “It’s very unusual and very touching to see that. If there’s ever any doubt about why you’re doing this job, all you need to do is look out in the gallery.”

The emotional toll hasn’t been the only cost borne by Shalga Hightower. She said she lost her job in 2008 because of frequent absences to attend court hearings and later was evicted from her home in nearby Irvington.

She said she has a new job and a new home in Newark, and said although she wouldn’t change what she’s done the last five years, it will be a relief when the last trial is over and she can get her life back.

“People ask, ‘You’re still going through this?'” she said. “I’ve actually had people say to me, ‘You have to let it go.’ I tell them it’s not that I haven’t tried to or don’t want to; I can’t move on because this is 2012 and I’m still stuck in ’07, and I’m still going through this.”