`Angel on earth' remembered

Family, friends praise victim as her killer gets life sentence

January 09, 2007|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,Sun reporter

Linda Trinh, her family and friends said, would have tried to change the world. The 21-year-old Johns Hopkins University senior studying biomedical engineering felt the pull to help people by working in public health. Her brother called her "an angel on this earth."

Even her convicted killer, Donta Maurice Allen, said at his sentencing hearing yesterday, "I took away something that was far better than I am."

He realized that two years ago, moments after he beat and strangled Trinh while burglarizing her Charles Village apartment.

A 28-year-old Baltimore native and cook at local restaurants, Allen "preyed on college students," said Assistant State's Attorney Matthew Fraling. He stole money from the students he had befriended, repeatedly breaking into their off-campus apartments.

Allen was sentenced yesterday to life in prison - a term reached under a plea deal he entered in November. Convicted of first-degree murder, Allen could one day be eligible for parole, but if that day comes, the governor would have to sign off on his release.

Trinh's murder Jan. 22, 2005, which came just nine months after the stabbing death of another student at a fraternity house near campus - a crime that remains unsolved - played on the worst fears of parents who send their children to the prestigious university in Baltimore.

Several speakers, including Allen, addressed that issue at the hearing yesterday. "The city does not deserve the tag of ... `everyone here is like Mr. Allen,'" he said. He called his actions "impulsive and idiotic" and not representative of Baltimore.

Based on the killings of Trinh and Christopher Elser, Hopkins bolstered security in and around campus, adding more police foot patrols and installing 88 closed-circuit television cameras.

Still, Trinh's classmate and friend Erin Trish said her reflections on her time at Hopkins "will forever be tarnished."

"I lost the ability to listen to someone ask me, `How did you like Baltimore?' without a thick lump forming in my throat," Trish wrote in a letter that another classmate read in court.

That classmate, Kestrel Linder, also told the court, "My entire belief system was turned upside down, and I became suspect of the world around me."

Reached after the sentencing hearing, Hopkins spokesman Dennis O'Shea said that while the university believes in Baltimore, the two killings affected the campus "in ways that will never abate.

"You just don't forget that kind of experience," he said. "In some ways you don't want to. You want to remember two young lives that were so promising and that were snuffed out."

Although Allen's prison sentence was a foregone conclusion, the hearing was lengthy and emotional. Trinh's family and friends filled five courtroom benches. Classmate Linder said Trinh was "one of my generation's brightest shining stars."

Her death was "senseless and unfair," he said. "It denied the world her many future achievements."

A devoted scholar and the daughter of Vietnamese immigrants, Trinh had mapped out her goals for the next five years. She had already accomplished many of them - even traveling to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City the summer before her death to study breast cancer detection and AIDS-related dementia.

If all had gone according to plan, she would be a student now at Stanford University's School of Medicine.

"She only hoped to make this world a happier place," her older brother, Quang Trinh, told the courtroom.

Trinh's parents noted that their daughter, the light of their lives, had "accomplished more than some people do in their entire lifetime," in a letter the prosecutor read to the judge.

Just before Circuit Judge Roger W. Brown sentenced him, Allen addressed the court for about 10 minutes, apologizing repeatedly, particularly to Trinh's parents and to Hopkins students. Fraling later said his remarks were "too little too late."

Fraling said it was "cowardice" that defined Allen. He pointed out that Allen is a foot taller and 60 pounds heavier than Trinh. And he said Allen victimized college students 10 years his junior, befriending them only to take advantage of them.

Allen had been dating one of Trinh's Alpha Phi sorority sisters, who lived in the same high-rise apartment building in the 3300 block of N. Charles St. as Trinh.

Fraling said that while Trinh and other friends were scared of Allen - even calling him "Mr. Sketchy" - they tolerated him because of his girlfriend.

At his guilty plea hearing Nov. 14, Fraling read into court record the police account of the crime. Allen told police he planned to burglarize Trinh's apartment believing that, because it was the end of the winter break, she and her roommates were still away.

But Trinh was home, and they had a confrontation that turned physical. He 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 2 inches of standing water in the bathtub.

Court papers show that prosecutors intended to seek life without parole for Allen, but Fraling said he instead pursued a plea deal "to provide a measure of closure to the family."

After the November plea hearing, Trinh's mother Hoan Thi Trinh was thankful to avoid a trial, saying, "It would kill us a little more every day to hear the details."

Under state law, Allen's life sentence means he will be eligible for parole in about 11 1/2 years. But his release would have to be approved by the governor - something that the past several governors have done sparingly, if at all.

julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com

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