Professor's murder trial to begin today

Former Loyola teacher might use `voluntary intoxication defense'

July 05, 2005|By Anica Butler | Anica Butler,SUN STAFF

The trial of a retired Loyola College professor accused of killing his estranged wife and stepson is scheduled to begin today in York County, Pa.

Prosecutors, who say that Donald B. Hofler, 70, fatally shot Rita Hofler and her 17-year-old son, Kevin Gehring, in April 2004, are seeking the death penalty.

But one of Hofler's attorneys said a "voluntary intoxication defense" might be a factor in the trial, in that it could be a defense against the capital charge, first-degree murder.

"His conduct ... does not tell us what was going on in his head, what his intentions were or whether they were affected by alcohol, drugs or mental illness," said attorney Thomas L. Kearney II.

On April 25, 2004, Pennsylvania state police found Rita Hofler and Gehring dead from multiple gunshot wounds in Hofler's home in Shrewsbury Township, just north of the Mason-Dixon Line. State police also found Hofler semiconscious in the home. He had taken more than 100 tablets of Valium in an apparent suicide attempt, according to authorities. Police also said that Hofler confessed to the shootings in an interview at York Hospital, where he was treated for the overdose.

In recordings that police found in Hofler's house and that were played by prosecutors in a May 2004 hearing, Hofler discussed his funeral arrangements, his lack of desire to live and a plan to kill his wife and her son, if the teenager accompanied his mother to Hofler's house.

The existence of the recordings and the hospital confession - which defense attorneys had sought to have tossed out - doesn't mean Hofler is guilty of a crime, Kearney said last week.

"Just because there was a confession doesn't mean we've crossed that first threshold, that he did it," Kearney said.

Defense attorneys have said that they intend to argue that the cumulative effects of Hofler's prescription medications, alcohol consumption and mental state rendered him "mentally infirm" at the time of the shootings.

Attempts to obtain comment from prosecutors were unsuccessful.

Under Pennsylvania law, there are five degrees of homicide. For conviction on a charge of first-degree murder, which is what Hofler has been charged with and which can carry a death sentence, a jury must find that the defendant intended to kill his victim, according to Kearney. A finding of third-degree murder would mean that the defendant had malice toward the victim but not a specific intention to kill.

The voluntary intoxication defense, Kearney said, could help persuade a jury - if they decide that Hofler is guilty of a crime - to find him guilty of third-degree murder instead of first-degree murder.

"We're going to trial because the jury needs to understand why. These things don't happen in a vacuum," Kearney said. "In order to determine a proper punishment, we need to determine what was going on inside his head."

Rita Hofler, a 48-year-old elementary school teacher in Harford County, had filed for divorce and moved in with another man, ending 15 years of marriage. Hofler, who taught reading teachers at Loyola College in Maryland for 27 years until retiring in 2000, was devastated, according to court documents.

In the days before the shootings, Hofler made a series of digital voice recordings.

"Rita's supposed to come over tomorrow," Hofler's groggy voice was heard saying on a recording played during a preliminary hearing in May last year. "If she does, it may well be her last day on earth. If Kevin comes along, it'll be his."

Jury selection is expected to take two days, and Kearney said he anticipates the entire trial should last about two weeks.

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