Nearly three years ago, two black college students and a friend were murdered in a schoolyard in Newark, N.J.
Monday, a jury returned guilty verdicts for three of the murders and one attempted murder, after deliberating for less than a day.
Rodolfo Godinez (pictured below), a 26-year-old gang member and native of Nicaragua, was convicted of all charges against him, including multiple counts of robbery, weapons possession and conspiracy. He can get up to 30 years to life for each murder count, and the sentences can be given out consecutively.
"This man will never see the light of day," said Robert D. Laurino, the acting Essex County prosecutor.
Sentencing for Godinez is set for July 8th. His lawyer, Roy Greenman, said, "Obviously, there will be an appeal on a number of grounds," but he declined to state the grounds on which he'd be filing.
The prosecution did not assert that Godinez was the one who hacked at the victims with a machete or shot each of them execution-style in the back of the head. He is accused, however, of being the one who summoned the other gang members to the schoolyard on the night when the murders took place. The murders were particularly chilling because all four of the victims were "good kids" with no criminal history and educational plans for the future.
Authorities are saying that Godinez came to the United States at the age of 9, probably illegally. Critics of immigration policy point to his sentencing as evidence that tougher enforcement is needed. At the time of the killings, he'd been a fugitive for the past four years, after jumping bail on assault and robbery charges. Godinez is also believed to be a member of MS-13, aka Mara Salvatrucha, a gang that started among Central American immigrants in Los Angeles.
The gang has a reputation for being incredibly violent. In 2006, Ernesto "Smokey" Miranda, a former high-ranking soldier and founder of the gang, was murdered in his home, after trying to transform his life to work with kids to keep them out of gangs. There are a number of other murders attributed to members of MS-13 throughout the nation.
Natasha Aeriel was the surviving victim of the crime. Her brother, Terrance, was killed that night. Natasha was sexually molested and shot herself, but did not die in the shooting. The group lined up three of the students against the wall and shot each of them. One of the victims, Iofemi Hightower, was badly hurt with a machete before she died. Natasha Aeriel, Hightower's best friend, now has partial paralysis in her face, deafness in one ear and chronic pain as a result of her injuries.
Three of the victims were students at Delaware State University. Hightower planned to enroll in the school in the near future. The crime has led the city of Newark to change its policing policies, including the use of more cameras to protect citizens.
This tragedy was senseless, shocking and brought tears to my eyes. These four students remind me of members of my own family, and to see something so horrible happen to someone you love is a nightmare that none of us would ever want to experience. Newark is a city full of nightmares, a place where the crime rate often overwhelms the overworked, underpaid police force in the city. I assume Mayor Cory Booker is doing the best job he can, but this job would be too big for any political figure to handle.
The strong presence of Latin American gangs creates an added level of complexity for the African-American community. Those of us who are accustomed to whites using the "Willie Horton strategy" of scaring people in to believing that African Americans are more likely than others to be criminal should realize that some might use similar strategies to make us fear immigrants to our nation. It is imperative that we be wise enough to realize that violent citizens from other countries are not reflective of the hard-working immigrant communities that help to make our nation strong.
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Dr. Boyce Watkins is the founder of the Your Black World Coalition and the author of the new book 'Black American Money.' To have Dr. Boyce's commentary delivered to your e-mail, please click here.