Judge tells prosecution, defense to seek to resolve overturned murder case

Posted: September 27, 2011

Two months after the New Jersey Supreme Court overturned a 30-year prison sentence for convicted killer Marie Hess, a judge in Burlington County has ordered the prosecutor and defense to look into ways to resolve her case.

Hess' rights were violated, according to the Supreme Court, because her plea agreement improperly barred her defense attorney from arguing for leniency at her sentencing hearing a decade ago. The sentencing judge did not have the opportunity to weigh Hess' claim that she killed her husband because she was a victim of domestic abuse, the court said.

Hess was charged with murder in the Aug. 19, 1999, shooting of her husband, James, a Burlington Township police officer. She pleaded guilty to aggravated manslaughter instead of going to trial. She and James Hess were each 35 at the time of the shooting.

The Supreme Court left it to the prosecutor to decide whether to seek a new sentencing hearing or to vacate Hess' plea and go to trial.

Following the July ruling, Burlington County Prosecutor Robert Bernardi said that he planned to try Hess for murder.

Superior Court Judge Jeanne T. Covert said Monday, however, that she wanted the prosecutor and defense to review the case for "potential resolutions," including a new plea arrangement. Covert set a date of Nov. 14 to hear their findings.

"In some sense we are starting over," Covert said.

Hess, who was moved from state prison to the Burlington County Minimum Security Facility in Pemberton last month, did not speak at Monday's hearing. She remains in jail with bail set at $250,000.

Deputy Public Defender Kevin Walker, Hess' attorney, said it could take up to 16 months to prepare for a trial. He must review all the records and interview potential witnesses because Hess previously was represented by another lawyer, Walker said.

The Prosecutor's Office is interviewing witnesses mentioned in the Supreme Court's opinion, according to Assistant Prosecutor Mark Westfall. Some said they had observed Marie Hess being threatened by her husband.

The investigation will determine how his office will proceed, Westfall said. "It's still pending a decision by the prosecutor," he said.

Contact staff writer Jan Hefler at 856-779-3224 or jhefler@phillynews.com.


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