IT WAS A CONTENDER for the title of most calculated, cold-blooded murder of the year. In Prince George's County, Donna Hoffman, married less than three months, sought the assistance of her boy friend and four other young men to murder her husband, Michael. All six participated in the planning and execution of this crime. They methodically led the victim to the assassination spot, put a couple of bullets into his body, then weighted it with cement blocks and dropped it in a creek. Donna Hoffmann paid the others $100 total for doing this.
The case is compelling because, aside from the wife and her lover, the killers appeared to have neither motive nor a clear understanding of the enormity of their crime. A lawyer for one said that the murder was approached "as a lark"; another defendant, then a freshman at Johns Hopkins, explained, "I really don't know about morals. . . . I just thought I could get away with it."
Circuit Court Judge Jacob S. Levin, who presided at Donna Hoffmann's trial and accepted guilty pleas from the others, meted out sentences ranging from 10 years to life, depending upon the extent of each defendant's participation in the crime and cooperation with the prosecution. Donna Hoffmann and George Harvey (who pulled the trigger) received life sentences. So did Stephen Troese, a college dropout and the son of a wealthy and prominent Prince George's County attorney. Stephen Troese is described by the prosecutor as the mastermind of the killing. He provided the weapon, solicited Mr. Harvey (who was a tenant farmer on his father's land) to shoot it, and helped dispose of the body. He was the one who kept all the people together to commit the murder.
Persons receiving life sentences are not eligible for parole until they have served at least 15 years. But on Dec. 23, Stephen Troese's future brightened dramatically when Judge Levin reduced his sentence to 25 years. Because Maryland law allows parole for those on fixed terms after they have served one-fifth of their sentence and, in addition, allows time off for good behavior, Mr. Troese will be eligible for parole in about four years.
Judges in this country are given wide latitude in passing sentences. Cases are evaluated individually and extenuating circumstances are taken into account. This is good. But it is also necessary to keep in mind the crime that the punishment is designed to fit. In the case of Stephen Troese, it was a capital offense. Judge Levin gave three reasons for reducing his sentence: the feelings of the murderer's family, the holiday spirit and the disparity of the sentences given to the six who were convicted.
The first two are patently irrelevant. The third was strongly refuted by the prosecutor who stressed the pivotal role played by young Mr. Troese. Without questioning Judge Levin's competence or integrity, for he is widely regarded as an excellent and hard-working judge, it is possible to speculate on what the public perception of his decision will be. Is a sentence that allows for parole after four or five years a sufficient penalty for this crime? Why should the feelings of the killer's family be taken into consideration? Will the sentences given to Donna Hoffmann and George Harvey be reduced, too? What does this sentence say to the community at large about the serious nature of this crime?
Perhaps Judge Levin answered all these questions to his own satisfaction before reducing Stephen Troese's sentence. The parole authorities have an equal obligation to address the last one four years from now.