A psychiatrist testified yesterday that Donna Best Hoffmann, charged with helping five young men murder her husband, was "like marshmallow" in the hands of police when they questioned her about her role in the crime.
Appearing as a witness for the defense, Dr. Richard Epstein told a Prince George's County jury that Hoffmann suffers from a "panic disorder" that prevented her from thinking rationally or realizing that she had the right to call a lawyer while being questioned by police.
Hoffmann's lawyer, Karl Feissner, has maintained that Hoffmann asked police to speak to a lawyer after her arrest, but that police denied her request -- and her rights. Epstein suggested that Hoffmann could have thought she asked for a lawyer when she may not have. But, he added, "Mrs. Hoffmann could not have freely, rationally waived her rights" to speak to one.
According to the testimony of numerous police and detectives, however, Hoffmann never asked for a lawyer.
Hoffmann's statements to police -- which have been read to the jury -- would be inadmissable as evidence if she gave them after being refused a lawyer. The case is expected to go to the jury today.
Hoffmann gave police at least three versions of the crime the day after the Dec. 15 murder. In one of the versions, she told homicide detective Michael G. Ferriter that she asked two men to "make arrangements to do away with her husband."
The body of Michael Hoffmann, 20, was discovered in Black Swamp Creek in Aquasco in southern Prince George's the day after the Dec. 15 murder. Donna Hoffmann had been married to her husband, a civilian clerk at Andrews Air Force Base, for three months.
Hoffmann, who originally told police her husband had disappeared, eventually told police she had watched George Harvey, 23, shoot her husband in the chest and head. She then led police to the body.
The prosecution has argued that Hoffmann helped her boyfriend and four other young men plan her husband's murder, that she drove her husband to the scene of the murder in Aquasco, watched as he was shot and then paid the gunman, Harvey, $100.
But the defense has argued that Hoffmann did not plan her husband's murder, did not know of the plans to kill him, and did not pay Harvey $100. Although defense attorney Feissner had admitted that Hoffmann drove her husband to the scene of the murder, he has argued that she did so only because her husband wanted to "show his manhood" and face her boyfriend, John Penkert. Hoffmann has testified that she told her husband Penkert wanted to harm him.
Contradicting about a dozen people who testified against her during the trial, Hoffmann told the jury last week that she had been a faithful wife, never smoked PCP, and did not plot to kill her husband. She also contradicted some of her statements to police. She even contradicted herself on the witness stand, first saying she knew that the young men had a gun hours prior to the murder and later saying she did not know they had a gun until she saw it at the murder scene.
Yesterday, Dr. Epstein provided an explanation for the numerous contradictions. Hoffmann, Epstein said, suffered from memory lapses. In trying to fill in those lapses, she provides more or less unconscious details -- which may or may not be accurate. And as a result, Epstein said, she appears to be lying.
"She takes bits and pieces of what she remembers," Epstein said. "It's not really lying."