Life term in Hopkins case

Student's killer pleads guilty

Woman, 21, was choked in her apartment near school's campus after break-in last year

November 15, 2006|By Julie Bykowicz and Dan Thanh Dang | Julie Bykowicz and Dan Thanh Dang,SUN REPORTERS

The high school dropout and transient Baltimore restaurant worker ingratiated himself into a social circle of Johns Hopkins students. But all the while, he was honing his burglary skills near the university, lifting little things, such as music players, coins and even food from the students' refrigerators.

It was late Jan. 22, 2005, when Donta Maurice Allen broke into the Charles Village apartment that Linda Trinh shared with two other women, a botched burglary that, prosecutors said yesterday, led to Allen choking and beating Trinh and leaving her face down in her bathtub.

Allen, 28, pleaded guilty yesterday in Baltimore Circuit Court to first-degree murder, securing a life sentence with the possibility of parole. He is to be sentenced in January.

FOR THE RECORD - A photo caption and an article in Wednesday's editions about a man pleading guilty to killing Johns Hopkins University student Linda Trinh misspelled the name of the victim's father. He is Quy Van Trinh. Also, the photo on page 1A showed Trinh's mother and uncle, Hieu Ngo.
The Sun regrets the errors.

Until yesterday, which was to be the first day of trial, city prosecutors had sought life without the possibility of parole.

Trinh's parents, Vietnamese immigrants, said after the hearing that they were thankful to avoid a trial. They said the plea spares them what would have been a daily, heart-heavy journey from their home in Silver Spring to Baltimore to file into the courthouse.

"We thank God that we didn't have a trial," said Hoan Thi Trinh, Linda's mother. "It would kill us a little more every day to hear the details."

More than a dozen of Trinh's relatives and friends sat silently yesterday on the courtroom benches. When Trinh's father saw Allen, for the first time, he felt neither hate nor forgiveness, he said later.

Allen is remorseful, his lawyer said.

During and after the court hearing, the prosecutor and defense attorney gave the first in-depth explanation of how and why the promising student, a 21-year-old biomedical engineering major with dozens of friends, died.

Allen didn't think anyone was home that January night, one of the final days of winter break, but there was Trinh, wearing only a T-shirt and bra, said defense attorney Warren A. Brown.

Allen tried to assure the terrified woman that he wasn't there to sexually assault her, Brown said.

Allen knew Trinh. He was dating one of her sorority sisters, who lived one floor above Trinh in The Charles, a high-rise in the 3300 block of N. Charles St. occupied mostly by students.

Clutching her roommate's cell phone, Trinh said she was going to call the police. Allen tried to dissuade her, but she kept threatening to make the call, Brown said.

Their "argument soon escalated to a physical confrontation," Assistant State's Attorney Matthew Fraling said in court. Allen began to hit her, and she scratched him on the left side of his neck.

He beat her and choked her with his hands, Fraling said. She was left in two inches of standing water in the bathtub. The cell phone was there, too.

According to the medical examiner's report, there were signs that Trinh might have been alive when she went into the tub. There was no evidence of sexual assault, the report says.

Neither Fraling nor Brown would say whether Allen had tried to use the bathtub to stage a suicide or accident.

"I don't want to get into the gory details," Brown said.

Another mystery of the crime scene was the timing of a maintenance worker's visit to Trinh's apartment that night.

Smelling natural gas, other residents had summoned maintenance. Fraling said a worker arrived at the apartment about 10 p.m. He found the gas of the stove on but the pilot lights out, Fraling said. He also found a candle burning on the stovetop, Fraling said.

He did not find Trinh, who by then was dead. One of her roommates found her body the next day.

Crucial clues

When Allen left the apartment, he took several purses, Fraling said. But he left behind crucial clues. Security tapes show Allen in the building, and skin cells under Trinh's fingernails contained Allen's DNA, Fraling said.

Allen was arrested and charged in March 2005, and he gave police a taped statement admitting that he was in Trinh's apartment on the night of her death.

In court yesterday, Allen, tall, lanky and closely shaven, showed no outward emotion, though he was escorted out briefly after saying he felt ill.

Brown said his client is "racked with guilt. He did not intend for this to happen."

Allen, Brown said, had been pilfering from the apartments of Trinh and other students "only when he knew people weren't there."

Allen grew up in Cherry Hill, but his family moved frequently. He attended Perry Hall High School but dropped out in 1998. He later earned a General Education Development diploma. At one point, he has said, he was hospitalized after attempting suicide.

In the months before Trinh was killed, Allen worked in bars and restaurants near the Hopkins campus. Students befriended him, but some called him "Mr. Sketchy" behind his back.

Allen pleaded guilty because he felt remorse, Brown said, and because "he doesn't want to die in jail. The plea will allow him to one day come home."

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