Suspects in Newark Schoolyard Killings Plead Not Guilty

Three men and three teens pleaded not guilty Wednesday in the execution-style slayings of three friends hanging out at a school playground in Newark.

All six are charged with robbery, felony murder and weapons offenses. The three teens are being tried as adults.

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"Today, we are one step closer to seeking justice in this matter," Essex County prosecutor Paula T. Dow said.

All six suspects have reputed links to the MS-13 street gang. A gun used to kill the three college-age men came from a high-ranking member of the gang, authorities had said.

An indictment last month charged Rodolfo Godinez, 25; his 17-year-old half-brother, Alexander Alfaro; Jose Carranza, 29; Melvin Jovel, 19; and 16-year-olds Shahid Baskerville and Gerardo Gomez.

Carranza and Baskerville also was charged with sexual assault of the fourth victim who was seriously wounded. They pleaded not guilty.

The six are accused of killing Terrance Aeriel, 18, and 20-year-olds Iofemi Hightower and Dashon Harvey. They were college students hanging out behind the Mount Vernon School when they were lined up and shot in the back of the head in front of a wall behind the school on Aug. 4, 2007.

A fourth victim, whom The Associated Press is not identifying because of the sexual assault charges, survived with gunshot and stab wounds and helped authorities identify at least one of the suspects.

Gomez's attorney Michael Robbins said his client was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Sister Antonella Chunka of Promise Outreach, an organization that provides counseling for juvenile prisoners, said Gomez told her he had planned to go out to celebrate his 15th birthday on the night of the killings but became a victim of circumstance.

"This terrible tragedy didn't occur at the hand of this child," Robbins said. "Not at his direction or his request."

Dow said: "I focus on the acts that led to the charges. Sadly, people at different levels of abilities and ages can be involved in the most horrendous cases. We believe the grand jury appropriately returned charges against him as well as the other five defendants, and we are prepared to present our case."

State Superior Court Judge Michael Nelson denied a request Wednesday to raise their bail from $1 million to $2 million.

Prosecutors also requested that the three juveniles be transferred to the juvenile section of the Essex County jail.

The judge set a Dec. 2 court date for attorneys to file motions and scheduled a hearing on the transfers.

Dow said she expects the trial to begin by the first half of 2009, though defense attorneys are expected to file motions for separate trials.