Attorneys painted sharply contrasting pictures Wednesday of a man on trial for the slayings of three college students in a crime that shocked the violence-plagued city of Newark in 2007 and galvanized support for a host of anti-crime measures.
Defense attorney Raymond Morasse's summation painted Alexander Alfaro as a "scared kid" threatened into action by a violent older brother and, following his arrest two weeks later, urged to lie about his involvement by a detective who told him he could help himself by making his story synch up with those given by other defendants.
Hardly, Assistant Essex County Prosecutor Thomas McTigue argued. The then-16-year-old Alfaro had been a member of the MS-13 street gang for several months and knew what he was doing when he responded to half-brother Rodolfo Godinez's order to bring a machete to the Mount Vernon School playground on the night of Aug. 4, 2007.
"Just because he looks young, that's not a defense," McTigue said. "Maybe he's not the devil incarnate, but he's not an ingenue either. "He's a 16-year-old kid in the city of Newark who's been an MS-13 member for several months. He's no shrinking violet."
Alfaro and five others were charged in the execution-style murders of college-bound friends Iofemi Hightower and Dashon Harvey, 20, and 18-year-old Terrance Aeriel. A fourth victim, who isn't being identified by The Associated Press because of sexual assault charges against two other defendants, was slashed and shot but survived her injuries and testified against Alfaro.
The shocking crime jump-started anti-crime measures such as the installation of surveillance cameras that were credited with decreasing violent crime in the city.
Wednesday's dueling two-hour-plus closing arguments focused on the central questions the jury must take up when it begins deliberations Thursday: Was Alfaro under duress before, during and after the murders due to threats by Godinez; was he a bystander or participant in the robbery and subsequent attacks, and was he the victim of police chicanery?
Morasse characterized the investigation as "sloppy" and assailed the police for not videotaping Alfaro's statement to them after his capture in Virginia.
"It would be the most important piece of evidence but you don't have it," he told jurors. "Why? Because they didn't want you to have it."
A detective testified that investigators were led to believe a video system was working at a juvenile facility in Virginia, but later discovered it was undergoing maintenance. Alfaro's statement was recorded by two audio recorders.
Det. Kevin Green also denied Alfaro's trial testimony that he pressured Alfaro to tailor his version of events to match other statements. Morasse pointed out that Alfaro's initial identification of co-defendant Jose Carranza as the gunman matched that of the survivor's _ it was revealed later that both were incorrect.
Alfaro faces 17 counts including murder, felony murder and robbery. He was charged under New Jersey's accomplice liability statute, which defines an accomplice as someone who "aids or agrees or attempts to aid such other person in planning or committing" a crime.
McTigue told jurors that Alfaro assisted in the attacks by bringing the machete, and told a cousin the next day that he participated in the robbery. Alfaro admitted using the machete during his taped statement but on the witness stand testified he was pressured into lying by Green.
The duress claim doesn't hold water, McTigue told jurors, because the defense isn't allowable under law if a defendant recklessly causes the crime to occur.
"His first reckless act was, he joined a gang, he went through initiation," McTigue said. "He made that conscious choice. He got a call and took that machete.
The duress defense "is not available to him by any sense of common sense or decency, or under the law," the prosecutor concluded.