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Final defendant in Newark schoolyard murders gets 195 years in prison

By Mary Barr Mann

(Reuters) - The sixth and final defendant convicted in the 2007 schoolyard shooting deaths of three college students in Newark, New Jersey, was sentenced on Wednesday to 195 years in prison.

Gerardo Gomez, 20, was the youngest defendant convicted in the murders of three Delaware State University students and the attempted murder of a fourth in the playground of Mt. Vernon Elementary School on August 4, 2007. The day of the murders was Gomez's 15th birthday.

Shot dead were Terrance Aeriel, 18, and Dashon Harvey and Iofemi Hightower, both 20. Natasha Aeriel, now 24, was shot and attacked with a machete but survived.

Although a minor at the time of the crime, Gomez was tried as an adult.

He must serve 165 years of his 195-year sentence before he is eligible for parole.

Four other defendants are serving multiple consecutive life sentences for the shootings.

A fifth defendant, Shahid Baskerville, had been charged with murder but pleaded guilty to lesser counts in exchange for testimony against Gomez and others. Baskerville is currently serving a 30-year sentence.

"Together these six defendants have been sentenced to more than 1,000 years in prison for committing one of the most heinous crimes known to Essex County," said Assistant Essex County Prosecutor Romesh Sukhdeo in a statement.

Gomez's lawyer, Michael Robbins, did not immediately return calls for comment.

The schoolyard shooting drew national attention just one year into Cory Booker's first term as mayor of Newark. In the wake of the high-profile incident, violent crime in Newark lessened, with the city experiencing its first murder-free month since 1944 in March 2010, although crime has been rising in the last two years amid police staffing cuts.

Acting Essex County Prosecutor Carolyn Murray said that the sentencing brings some closure to the lone surviving victim and the victims' families.

"For more than five years, Natasha Aeriel, the lone survivor, and the parents of these promising young people who were murdered senselessly, have had to live and re-live what occurred in that schoolyard on August 4, 2007," Murray said in a statement.

The legal saga continues, however, with lawsuits filed by the victims' parents against the Newark public school district for failing to secure the schoolyard.

(Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Steve Orlofsky)

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