Man sentenced to life for schoolyard killings

Melvin Jovel (L) was sentenced to three consecutive life terms in prison plus 20 years

NEWARK – A Honduran man who admitted pulling the trigger in the execution-style killings of three college students in a schoolyard was sentenced on Thursday, local time, to three consecutive life terms in a case that jolted New Jersey’s largest city into dealing with its crime problem.

Melvin Jovel pleaded guilty to murder, attempted murder and weapons charges days before his trial was to begin in September.

Prosecutors said 21-year-old Jovel and five other young men lined up Iofemi Hightower and Dashon Harvey, both 20, and 18-year-old Terrance Aeriel, against a schoolyard wall in Newark and shot each of them in the back of the head on a summer night in 2007.

A fourth victim survived and testified at the first trial in the case that she was sexually assaulted, slashed with a machete and shot in the head.

She also spoke in court Thursday, thanking Jovel for “allowing me to get closer to Christ” before chastising him for refusing to look at her as she spoke.

“You and your homies (friends) had a plan for me, you wanted me dead – but I’m still here,” said the woman, who is not being identified because of the sexual assault charges. “Have fun living your fancy life in jail,” she added.

Jovel, wearing dark green prison scrubs and translation headphones, stared straight ahead throughout the proceedings, making only a brief statement in Spanish before his sentencing.

“The only thing I have to say is the person who was sentenced had nothing to do with it,” Jovel said, an apparent reference to co-defendant Rodolfo Godinez, who was sentenced in July to three consecutive life sentences for the killings.

Four other defendants are in jail awaiting trial.

Prosecutors said Godinez, a legal immigrant from Nicaragua, Jovel, an illegal Honduran immigrant, and several of the defendants were engaging in an initiation ritual for members of the MS-13 street gang. The men did not know the victims, prosecutors said, but Jovel and at least two of the other suspects had lived in an apartment complex across the street from the scene of the slayings.

The four victims, who attended or planned to attend Delaware State University, were hanging out listening to music behind Newark’s Mount Vernon school on the night of August 4, 2007, when they were approached by the suspects, who robbed them and forced them to lie on the ground before shooting them, according to prosecutors.

The publicity surrounding the killings focused national attention on violent crime in New Jersey’s largest city and jump-started anti-crime initiatives. The killings also led state officials to grant police the authority to refer violent crime suspects’ names to immigration authorities if they are suspected of being in the country illegally.

State Superior Court Judge Michael Ravin gave Jovel three consecutive life sentences plus 20 years, which in New Jersey, is an aggregate sentence of about 245 years.

Jovel would have to serve at least 85 per cent of that before becoming eligible for parole.

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