The third of six defendants in a schoolyard triple murder was sentenced Thursday to more than 200 years in prison by a judge who cast aside his argument that he was coerced into the attack by an older half-brother who was the head of a violent street gang.
Alexander Alfaro was 16 at the time of the 2007 killings that shocked New Jersey's largest city and led to anti-crime reforms. He was convicted last month on 16 of 17 counts related to the attack.
On Thursday, Alfaro received 60 years each on two of the murders and 75 years on the third murder, to run consecutively. He also was sentenced to a consecutive term of 17 years for armed robbery.
The three victims _ Terrance Aeriel, Dashon Harvey and Iofemi Hightower _ were attending or about to attend Delaware State University. A fourth friend survived being shot and slashed with a machete.
The savage nature of the crimes focused national attention on crime in Newark, where the murder rate had spiked in the early part of the decade. Numerous measures such as street surveillance cameras were fast-tracked after the murders and were credited with making initial gains in lowering violent crime.
Relatives of the victims spoke in court Thursday of the toll the murders have taken on their lives. Hightower's mother, Shalga, wept loudly as state Superior Court Judge Michael Ravin described trial evidence that Alfaro slashed the young woman so deeply the machete became embedded in her skull.
During her statement to the court, Hightower defiantly refused to let Alfaro "destroy me or my family."
"You need to be thankful I serve a loving and forgiving God, because He is in control," she said as Alfaro stared away from her. "I don't have to hate you or be angry with you or worry about you. My God is going to take care of you."
Two other defendants are serving consecutive life sentences for the murders, including Alfaro's half-brother, Rodolfo Godinez. Three defendants are jailed awaiting possible trial dates.
Prosecutors have said the attack was orchestrated by Godinez, a self-professed leader in the violent MS-13 street gang. Prosecutors believe five of the six defendants, including Alfaro, were gang members.
The victims were robbed at gunpoint before they were led down a set of stairs and made to kneel against a wall before being shot.
Alfaro told police after his capture in Virginia that he slashed Hightower with the machete before she and the others were shot. But on the witness stand, he denied doing it and said he was pressured by a detective to change his statement to conform to what other defendants had already told police.
He also testified that he was coerced by Godinez into bringing the machete to the Mount Vernon School playground. Alfaro admitted joining the gang several months before the crimes, but testified he was shocked that night when he realized what was happening.
Ravin conceded that Godinez applied some pressure on Alfaro but said the severity of the crimes far outweighed any coercion for sentencing purposes.
"The barbarity of what was done to these victims merits paramount weight," he said. The gang life "was the life he wanted. It enticed him."
Defense attorney Raymond Morasse had sought concurrent sentences and argued that Alfaro bore less responsibility than Godinez and Melvin Jovel, who pleaded guilty last year and admitted pulling the trigger.
"Yes, he was different," Assistant Essex County Prosecutor Thomas McTigue told the judge. "A bullet can be impersonal, but it takes a certain state of mind, a certain disregard for the sanctity of human life to take a machete" and inflict the wounds.
"He stands before you spattered with the blood of Iofemi Hightower," McTigue concluded. "By his own hand he inflicted those wounds. And that certainly does distinguish him from the other defendants."