Shalga Hightower, right, is consoled by family friend Cathy Rainey, at Hightower’s Newark, N.J. home, as she talks about her daughter, Iofemi Hightower, 20, who was killed in an execution-style shooting of four young friends in a schoolyard late Saturday night.
NEWARK, N.J. — In a dramatic opening statement Thursday, the attorney for the final defendant in a schoolyard triple-murder case quoted Shakespeare at times and knelt in front of the jury to re-enact a victim begging for her life as he sought to portray his client as a hapless bystander who had simply wanted money to go to the movies for his birthday.
“It was supposed to be a movie, not murder; a birthday sleepover with two friends, not this,” Attorney Michael Robbins said of his client, Gerardo Gomez, who stands accused of participating in the execution-style killings of three college-bound friends in a Newark schoolyard on the night of his 15th birthday, Aug 4, 2007.
“Who could have expected that Gerado’s 15th birthday would be one he’d never forget; that would leave him with such grief and such pain,” Robbins said during opening statements in Superior Court in Newark.
The portrayal of Gomez as a bystander under pressure from older acquaintances who were avowed members of the MS-13 street gang, as well as mention that Gomez’s birthday had somehow been ruined, upset James Harvey, whose son, Dashon Harvey, was one of those killed.
“I will never forget that day as well,” he said. “Because that’s the last day I spoke to my son, or saw my son.”
Along with Harvey, family members of victims Iofemi Hightower and Terrance “T.J.” Aeriel have attended nearly every court appearance over the past five years. A fourth victim who survived the attack but was sexually assaulted and shot in the head is not being named by The Associated Press because of the nature of the crimes. She has testified against several of the defendants and is expected to take the stand in Gomez’s trial.
Three of the six defendants were convicted at trial and are serving multiple life sentences. Two pleaded guilty, one to reduced charges. Gomez faces life in prison if convicted of murder and felony murder.
The slayings sent shockwaves through Newark, jump-starting anti-crime measures such as the installation of surveillance cameras that were credited with decreasing violent crime in the state’s largest city.
First Assistant Prosecutor Thomas McTigue detailed the brutality of the crimes in his opening statement, describing how the six men and boys happened upon the four friends — who were hanging out listening to music and drinking sodas — and swarmed around them “like predators and their prey.”
McTigue described how, in addition to the sexual assault, they had slashed one victim repeatedly with a machete, and another with a blade, before making three of them kneel in front of a wall and shooting each in the head at close range.
All four victims were 20 or younger, and either attending or planning to attend Delaware State University that fall. The six accused in the killings were young as well, including Gomez, who is being tried as an adult.
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