Evidence lacking for hate crime charge in Newark slayings
Activists fear authorities caved to pressure from families
By LOU CHIBBARO JR.
A New Jersey prosecutor last week said investigators have yet to find sufficient evidence to classify as a hate crime the execution-style slayings of three college students in a Newark schoolyard last August hours before they planned to attend a Gay Pride festival.
Essex County Assistant Prosecutor Thomas McTigue responded to reporters' questions about a possible hate crime angle in the slayings at a courthouse news conference April 24 following the arraignment of two 16-year-old youths charged in the case.
One of the youths, Shahid Baskerville, has been charged with 20 criminal offenses in the case, including three counts of murder and three counts of aggravated sexual assault against one of two female victims.
Baskerville and Gerardo Gomez, who were 15 at the time of the murders, were the last to be arraigned among six males charged with murder, robbery and weapon possession offenses in a case that has attracted international attention. The others charged in the case range in age from 18 to 28.
Baskerville and Gomez pleaded not guilty through their lawyers at the arraignment, and Essex County Superior Court Judge Donald Volkert continued their bail at $1 million each.
"We have not been able to establish a hate crime" under the definition of the New Jersey hate crimes statute, McTigue said at the news conference. "We don't have probable cause for a hate crime," he said.
At least one of the slaying victims, Dashon Harvey, 20, was openly gay.
Harvey, Terrance Aeriel, 18, and Iofemi Hightower, 20, were shot point blank in the head after being lined up along a fence shortly before midnight at Newark's Mt. Vernon Elementary School on Aug. 4, 2007, police have said.
Natasha Aeriel, the sister of Terrance Aeriel, was also shot in the head and left for dead but survived and has been cooperating with authorities.
All four were enrolled as students at Delaware State University. They met up at the school grounds to wait for a friend, who told the Blade he invited them to spend the night at his house near the school.
The friend, who spoke on condition that his name be withheld, said the five had planned to drive together to New York City the next morning to attend a black Gay Pride event at Riis Park Beach.
McTigue said prosecutors would follow all leads in the investigation. He said his office would not be deterred by political or community pressure to avoid pursuing a possible hate crimes motive.
Gay activists said representatives of the families of the victims have told them they did not support efforts to publicly identify the murders as an anti-gay hate crime.
"We were told that anything related to the victims' sexual orientation should remain a private matter," said James Credle, co-president of Newark Pride Alliance, a gay group. "They made it clear that they didn't want the case to go in that direction," he said.
Credle said speculation that the killings might be an anti-gay hate crime has been unsettling to many, including family members of the victims, in Newark's large black community, where homosexuality remains a sensitive issue.
All of the victims in the slayings were black. Credle, whose Newark Pride Alliance advocates on behalf of black gays, said the group has been struggling to persuade city officials and the black community that authorities should determine whether the murders were based on the perception that the victims were gay, even if some were not.
"My concern is whether the prosecutor would consider the preference of the families to be political pressure or not," Credle said after Thursday's arraignment. "Because the families clearly don't want this to be noted."
Credle and Steven Goldstein, chair of Garden State Equality, a New Jersey gay rights group, attended the arraignment and the prosecutor's news conference.
Goldstein said he takes McTigue at his word that prosecutors won't be influenced by outside pressure, but he called McTigue's statement about lacking probable cause for a hate crime "vague" and unresponsive.
"The gay community of New Jersey is gravely concerned that this crime is not being investigated as a hate crime," Goldstein said. "It is true that we don't know if this was a hate crime based on one or more victims' sexual orientation," he said. "But we've got to find out."
"Is the prosecutor exploring the possibility that these were hate crimes based on the victims' sexual orientation? That's the answer that needs to be given to the public," Goldstein said.
In addition to Baskerville and Gomez, the others charged with murder and separate offenses in the case are Jose Carranza, 28, Rodolfo Godinez, 24, Melvin Jovel, 18, and Alexander Alfaro, 17. All were residents of Newark or surrounding towns.
McTigue said the charges against all six would go before a grand jury, with indictments expected in July or August.
Michael Robbins, an attorney for Gomez at the April 24 arraignment, said evidence he has seen so far indicates his client was present at the schoolyard but never wielded a weapon and never killed anyone.
Under New Jersey's criminal statutes, Gomez could be deemed responsible for the murders as an accomplice even if he never killed anyone himself.