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First defendant in New Jersey execution-style killings gets life

By Miguel Susana, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Rodolfo Godinez eligible for parole after 216 years
  • Jury convicts Godinez on all 17 counts including murder, felony murder
  • Godinez was charged along with five other defendants

(CNN) -- A man convicted in the execution-style killings of three students in New Jersey nearly three years ago was sentenced Thursday to three consecutive life sentences, the Essex County prosecutor's office said.

Rodolfo Godinez was the first person to stand trial in connection with the Newark murders. He got a 20-year sentence in addition to the life sentences.

Under New Jersey laws, Godinez would become eligible for parole after serving 216 years in prison, the prosecutor's office said.

One side of the courtroom was filled with victims' relatives and 10 gave statements asking New Jersey Superior Court Judge Michael Ravin to hand down the maximum sentence.

The lone-survivor of the attack, Natasha Aeriel, spoke last, according to Romesh Sukhdeo, assistant county prosecutor.

"She spoke today, and clearly at this point she was angry ... she said some harsh words toward the defendant but that's to be expected since her brother and two best friends were killed," Sukhdeo said.

A jury convicted Godinez, 26, on all 17 counts including murder, felony murder, attempted murder and robbery after just four hours of deliberations, according to Sukhdeo.

Godinez was charged along with five other defendants currently awaiting trial in the August 4, 2007, murders of Terrance Aeriel, Dashon Harvey, and Iofemi Hightower behind the Mt. Vernon Elementary School. They were made to kneel against a wall before they were shot execution-style in the head.

Aeriel's sister, Natasha, was also shot in the head, but survived the attack and later testified as the prosecution's main witness, according to Sukhdeo.

All of the victims were either students or about to be enrolled at Delaware State University.

During the 22-day trial, the prosecution argued that Godinez was involved in gang recruiting and characterized him as the ringleader of the group of defendants who used a handgun and a machete to attack four friends who had gathered to socialize behind a school.

"These kids weren't into drugs, they were minding their own business and these guys came up to them, robbed them, sexually assaulted one woman and then executed them," Sukhdeo said.

Godinez maintains his innocence, but admitted to be a member of the MS-13 gang and present at the school on the night of the triple homicides. However, he said he didn't participate in the crimes, according to his attorney Roy Greenman, who said he is planning to file an appeal.

Ballistic evidence, information from Aerial and a fingerprint lifted from a beer bottle at the scene led to the major break in the case that outraged the city.

By the time the attacks took place, the city had already recorded 60 killings that year.

The city's reaction to the murders helped Newark's police department implement policing tactics and technologies, including wireless camera surveillance and audio gunshot detection systems.

"Community organizations got together and through local foundations were able to raise money ... and that has enhanced our ability to create public safety in this city in a big way," said Garry McCarthy, Newark police director.