Trial under way in N.J. schoolyard triple slayings

/ Source: The Associated Press

A Newark man charged in the schoolyard slayings of three college-bound friends more than three years ago came to the crime scene with a machete that he used to slash some of the victims before they were shot execution-style, a prosecutor told jurors on the opening day of the man's trial Tuesday.

Alexander Alfaro faces 17 counts including murder, felony murder, robbery, conspiracy and weapons offenses stemming from the grisly attacks that killed Terrance "T.J." Aeriel, 18; Iofemi Hightower, 20, and 20-year-old Dashon Harvey behind Newark's Mount Vernon School the night of Aug. 4, 2007.

A fourth victim, who is not being named by The Associated Press because of sexual assault charges against other defendants, survived the attacks and will testify against Alfaro.

Alfaro, 16 at the time of the attacks, is the third of six defendants to have his case reach court. Last spring, Rodolfo Godinez was convicted in the murders, and in the fall the alleged triggerman, Melvin Jovel, pleaded guilty. Both men are serving multiple life sentences.

In opening statements Tuesday before a courtroom gallery that included about a dozen friends and family of the victims, Essex County Assistant Prosecutor Thomas McTigue described the movements of the four friends on the night of the murders: How they arrived the playground to find two of the defendants, Godinez and Jovel, then noticed the other four arrive soon after.

The attack started as a robbery, McTigue told jurors, then turned deadly as three of the victims were led down a flight of stairs.

"At the base of that stairway you're going to hear that terrible, terrible things occurred," McTigue said. "You're going to hear that Iofemi Hightower was viciously slashed, and the person who did that was Alexander Alfaro, who had brought the machete with him from his home."

Autopsy photos of Hightower's injuries were shown to jurors at Godinez's trial and caused some family members to leave the courtroom.

Attorney Raymond Morasse, representing Alfaro — who is Godinez's half-brother — focused on Alfaro's statement to police after his arrest in Virginia two weeks after the killings.

Alfaro was held for 16 hours before he made a videotaped statement, Morasse claimed. He questioned whether Alfaro had been given his rights or interrogated during that initial period.

While a state appeals court threw out the statements to police made by another defendant who was a juvenile at the time of the killings, a court ruled last fall that Alfaro's statements would be allowed to be introduced at his trial.

Morasse also noted that the survivor wasn't able to identify Alfaro as one of her attackers and that no forensic evidence — fingerprints, DNA or blood from the machete — ties him to the crimes.

None of the physical evidence "in any way shape or form relates to Alexander Alfaro or implicates him in this horrible tragedy," Morasse told jurors.