Donna Best Hoffmann, accused of paying five young men $100 to kill her husband, was convicted of first-degree murder yesterday by a Prince George's County Circuit Court jury.
Hoffmann sat impassively as the jury foreman read the guilty verdict, but a few minutes later began crying quietly. Her parents and sister were grim-faced, and her mother, Barbara Jean Best of District Heights, whispered to her and put her arm around her waist.
The jury deliberated 1 hour and 40 minutes before convicting Hoffman, 19, of both first-degree murder and being an accessory after murder. Hoffman who will be sentenced next month, faces a maximum term of life imprisonment for each count.
Two jurors interviewed, after the verdict said a crucial factor in their decision was their belief that Hoffman had not told the truth in her testimony.
"We were just kind of shook up that she told so many lies," said juror Cindy Ladd. "It was one thing that she told so many different stories to police. But it shook us up that she was lying to us, like when she said she never went out with [John] Penkert," her boyfriend who pleaded guilty along with four others in the case.
A psychiatrist testifying for the defense had contended that Hoffman suffers from memory lapses and often filled in details that were not accurate.
Judge Jacob Levin decided Hoffmann could remain free on her parents' $25,000 property bond until her sentencing next month. About 200 spectators packed the courtroom yesterday. They included the brothers and sister of the slain Michael Hoffmann, as well as friends of Donna Hoffmann and of the five young accomplices in the case.
The body of Michael Hoffmann was discovered in Black Swamp Creek in Aquasco in southern Prince George's County on Dec. 16, the day after the murder. Donna Hoffman had been married to her husband, a civilian clerk at Andrews Air Force Base, for three months.
Hoffman originally told police her husband had disappeared but eventually said she had watched George Harvey, 23, shoot her husband in the chest and head in front of four other young men, including her boyfriend Penkert. She then led police to the body.
In his summation to the jury yesterday, prosecutor Michael Whalen argued that Hoffman helped Penkert and four other men plan her husband's murder, drove her husband to the scene of the murder in Aquasco, watched as he was shot and then paid the gunman, George Harvey, $100.
"Michael Hoffmann had the great misfortune to fall in love with Donna Jean and at some point in time she decided that was enough," said Whalen. "She drove him to Aquasco Farm Road [the murder scene] and she paid someone to have him executed."
Hoffman was the only one among the six charged in the case who chose to have a trial. The five young men pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit murder, or accessory before the murder, or first-degree murder. None has been sentenced, although the sentences recommended by the prosecutor range from a life sentence for Harvey to life with all but 15 years suspended.
In his summation, Karl Feissner, Hoffman's lawyer, told the jury that her statements to police were not "the product of her own free will." He told the jury members they should look "with great disfavor" on the testimony of an accomplice in the case, Jeffrey Scott Whittaker.
The lawyer told the jury that after Michael Hoffmann had been shot, his last words to Donna Hoffmann were "I love you." Feissner suggested that those words meant that Michael Hoffmann understood that "his Donna was really trying to protect" him when she called him earlier in the day to warn him about the five young men.
Donna Hoffman grew up in District Heights, the daughter of a housewife and a construction worker. She dropped out of Suitland High School at the beginning of the 11th grade and then held a succession of jobs as a clerk, waitress, salesgirl and babysitter. The job she held longest lasted 9 1/2 months, when she worked behind the cosmetics counter at Woolco's department store in Forestville.
She met Michael Hoffmann in the 10th grade, and all during high school talked about how one day she would marry him. But she began dating Penkert steadily during the summer of 1980.A few months later, nevertheless, she married Hoffmann.
During the trial, witnesses presented a picture of Hoffmann sharply different from the one she presented herself. Three witnesses testified that they smoked PCP with Hoffmann, but Hoffmann said she had never smoked PCP -- on the afternoon the murder was planned or any other day in her life.
Three witnesses testified that they saw Hoffmann and John Penkert kissing and holding hands on numerous occasions before the murder, but Hoffmann said she only saw Penkert socially on one occasion in her life -- the night before the murder.
A witness said she saw Hoffmann give $100 to the gunman after the murder and another witness saw her with $100 when she left her house just before the murder, but Hoffman insisted she never paid the gunman.