A judge accepted a 15-year-plea deal for Yohan Hernandez in 2021 murder of Columbia High School student Moussa Fofana, in a hearing at the Essex County Courthouse in Newark on Thursday morning.
Hernandez appeared in court before Judge Ronald Wigler, according to reports. Before the plea deal was accepted, Moussa’s mother Hawa and father Yasshe begged Wigler not to accept the plea, and asked for a sentence of 30 years.
Referring to Hernandez, Hawa Fofana said, “He and his group of friends…decided to come over there and take the law into their own hands. That’s murder,” according to an ABC7 News report.
“A family should never ever equate a number to the value of their loved one,” Wigler said.
“The judge’s comments were very disappointing,” said Fred Profeta, an attorney and former Mayor of Maplewood who has been actively advocating for a strong sentence in the case. “He made no attempt to justify the brevity of the sentence. It’s just another horrible example of how the best justice system in the world can fail people miserably and leave them in agony.”
Rich Pompelio, the family’s attorney, said Wigler’s decision was not surprising “because he followed the law and recognized the prosecutor’s discretion in the plea bargaining process. Yesterday’s proceeding, however, did accomplish several important things. Instead of this plea bargain being quietly put through the system as one more case where the victim remained voiceless, we demonstrated yesterday in open court that victims have constitutional; rights that must be respected by the courts and the prosecutors. By demanding their rights be respected, Moussa’s parents gave a face and a voice to their son in this judicial process. This young man did nothing that excused or justified the intentional taking of his life. The public saw that fact yesterday. Hopefully, this will be a lesson learned by the prosecutor’s office, and it will revise its current plea bargaining practices.”
Moussa Fofana was 18 years old when he was shot and killed at Underhill Sports Complex on June 6, 2021.
The teen’s family and friends have spoken out against the plea deal, asserting that Moussa’s parents were not informed ahead of time nor given the opportunity to provide any input.
The community held a rally last week and started a petition to protest the alleged plea deal.
Profeta, who helped raise a $50,000 reward in the case, wrote in a letter to Acting Essex County Prosecutor Theodore Stevens on Wednesday that he was “astonished” by the reported plea deal. (See Profeta’s full letter to Stevens below).
Profeta said he consulted with Asst. Chief Prosecutor Tom Fennelly before and after the arrest and was assured the prosecution would “seek a just sentence.”
He wrote in the letter to Stevens: “Because of this, I was astonished to learn that your office has agreed to recommend a 15 year sentence in exchange for a guilty plea by Hernandez. I was especially astonished because of the statement which Hernandez gave to law enforcement, admitting to the intentional murder of Moussa, amounting, in effect, to a confession.”
Profeta continued: “…your office raised the fact that Hernandez would be attempting to raise a self-defense argument on the alleged grounds that Moussa “took a swing” at Hernandez, causing the latter to fire the lethal bullet. You know the facts of this case, and the law, as well as anyone. We both know that responding to a fist with a bullet does not constitute self-defense, as a matter of law.”
Alluding to the 2014 murder of local teen Brendon Tevlin, in which Judge Wigler gave the killer received multiple life sentences without parole, Profeta urged Stevens to reconsider the 15-year-plea in the murder, “…which has brought such anguish to the towns of Maplewood and South Orange. And, of course, this anguish cannot compare to that experienced by Moussa’s mother, Hawa Fofana, and his entire family. Hawa’s grief is only magnified by this prosecutorial failure, made worse by the fact that she was never consulted by your office before you arrived at a deal with Hernandez, even though she has been represented by [an] attorney throughout.”
Read Village Green’s full coverage here.
Dear Chief Prosecutor Stephens:
I am a former Mayor of Maplewood. I am a litigating attorney licensed to practice in New York. You may know of me by reason of my involvement in establishing a $50,000 reward fund for information leading to the arrest of Moussa Fofana’s killer. Moussa was a talented and popular student at Columbia High School, and a leader in his sport of soccer.
I write this email letter to protest the 15 year proposed sentence for Yohan Hernandez, who has admitted that he intentionally shot and killed Moussa Fofana. The penalty for this senseless crime carries a sentence of 30 years to life in prison, and we discern no legitimate reason why the penalty should not fall within these parameters.
I consulted Assistant Chief Prosecutor Tom Fennelly both before and after the arrest of Hernandez to obtain information about the case. Mr. Fennelly knew of my high degree of interest because of the reward effort. He was always extremely courteous and helpful to me. He informed me that the prosecutor assigned to this case is Jacqueline Balinkas, whom he described as a “bulldog” and someone who was certain to seek a just sentence for the killer. Because of this, I was astonished to learn that your office has agreed to recommend a 15 year sentence in exchange for a guilty plea by Hernandez. I was especially astonished because of the statement which Hernandez gave to law enforcement, admitting to the intentional murder of Moussa, amounting, in effect, to a confession.
Richard Pompelio, the victims’ rights attorney representing Moussa’s mother, Hawa Fofana, has attended two meetings with prosecutors Balinkas and Fennelly and others to discuss your proposed plea deal. You attended the first meeting. I understand that your office first attempted to justify the proposed sentence on the grounds that “juries are unpredictable.” True enough, but suffice it to say that any tough prosecutor, armed with Hernandez’s confession of intentional murder, should be unafraid to put that assessment to the test.
Next, your office raised the fact that Hernandez would be attempting to raise a self-defense argument on the alleged grounds that Moussa “took a swing” at Hernandez, causing the latter to fire the lethal bullet. You know the facts of this case, and the law, as well as anyone. We both know that responding to a fist with a bullet does not constitute self-defense, as a matter of law.
The community of Maplewood and South Orange is outraged by the 15 year proposed sentence. I am sure that you have seen the press coverage in the Star Ledger and other media sources. Our protest at Maplewood Town Hall was well covered by the New York television networks. We have circulated a “Justice for Moussa” petition, beginning on September 13, and that petition has already garnered 1,361 signatures as of this writing. You can view the petition on my Facebook page, and a printed copy of the signatures up to two days ago is attached.
This case is assigned to Judge Ronald Wigler. You no doubt remember the case arising out of the killing of Brendan Tevlin in 2016. That case was also assigned to Judge Wigler. Tevlin was shot on Northfield Avenue in West Orange, by a stranger. As in this case, Tevlin’s killing was a senseless act of intentional murder. And like Hernandez, Tevlin’s killer confessed to the crime. But unlike the instant case, that killer received multiple sentences of life without parole. He was described by Judge Wigler as a “monster” and an “animal”, deserving to die in prison. How can you or any other competent attorney distinguish these two cases to the extent of justifying the disparity in the sentences which would occur if your recommendation is accepted?
I urge you to reconsider your intended recommendation of only 15 years for Moussa”s horrific murder, which has brought such anguish to the towns of Maplewood and South Orange. And, of course, this anguish cannot compare to that experienced by Moussa’s mother, Hawa Fofana, and his entire family. Hawa grief is only magnified by this prosecutorial failure, made worse by the fact that she was never consulted by your office before you arrived at a deal with Hernandez, even though she has been represented by attorney Pompelio throughout.
Thank you for your consideration of this request. The citizens of Maplewood and South Orange trust that your good judgment will prevail in this matter.
Very truly yours,
Fred R. Profeta, Jr.