Oldest defendant in Newark schoolyard slayings rejects plea deal, claims innocence
Newark — In his first public comments since getting arrested nearly four years ago, the oldest defendant in the Newark schoolyard killings case declared his innocence during a court appearance today, at which he rejected a plea offer that would lead to his eventual release.
"I’m innocent and my conscience and hands are clear of all this," Jose Carranza said through a Spanish interpreter during the 30-minute proceeding in Newark.
Carranza, 32, is the only defendant of the six charged who never gave police a statement after his arrest in the Aug. 4, 2007, execution-style killings of three college-age friends and the wounding of a fourth. Despite his silence, prosecutors believe they have a strong case because Carranza’s fingerprints were lifted from a beer bottle found at the scene, and the surviving victim has identified him as one of the attackers.
Carranza, who prosecutors have described as a "menacing presence" during the attack behind the Mount Vernon School, answered a series of questions from the judge meant to establish his understanding of the plea deal and the possible consequences of rejecting it. Carranza said he was aware three other defendants have already been sentenced to life terms. His trial is set for Jan. 10.
Under the deal offered by the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office, Carranza would have to serve 40 years in prison in exchange for a guilty plea.
All six defendants were charged with fatally shooting Iofemi Hightower and Dashon Harvey, both 20, and Terrance Aeriel, 18. Terrance’s sister, Natasha Aeriel, then 19, was shot but survived. Carranza and another defendant, Shahid Baskerville, are also charged with sexual assault in what prosecutors say began as a robbery and was gang-motivated. The victims were not in a gang, and all were either enrolled in or planning to attend college in the fall.
In answer to the judge’s questions, Carranza, an illegal immigrant from Peru, said he had three years of secondary school education and held jobs in demolition and loading and unloading pallets.
He never spoke to police about the killings, though prosecutors have obtained a series of notes they say Carranza sent a fellow inmate, which described his alleged involvement.
Carranza, who is serving an eight-year prison sentence for his part in a bar brawl in West Orange, faces up to 255 years in prison if convicted of all charges in the schoolyard case.
Three of the six defendants have either been convicted or pleaded guilty, and each is serving more than 200 years in prison. Prosecutors say the other three, including Carranza, were not directly involved in the killing though they took part in the attack. Two of them, including Baskerville, were 15 at the time and are also awaiting trial. Baskerville has rejected a similar plea deal of 40 years.
Assistant Prosecutor Thomas McTigue said he was not surprised Carranza rejected the plea.
"We extended an offer that was fair and reasonable, and also took into account our desire to avoid the stress a trial imposes on the surviving victims and families," he said.
Carranza’s attorney, John Dell’Italia, said his client never considered pleading guilty. "From the inception of this case, whether it was a year or 40 years, he has maintained he’s innocent," he said.
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