Marie Hess, whose sentence in slaying of husband was overturned, gets 26 years

Marie Hess wipes a tear from an eye as she is resentenced in Mount Holly in the slaying of her husband.
Marie Hess wipes a tear from an eye as she is resentenced in Mount Holly in the slaying of her husband. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 28, 2012

A Burlington-Bristol Bridge toll-taker whose 30-year sentence for killing her husband was overturned by the New Jersey Supreme Court a year ago received a slightly shorter prison term Thursday.

A judge shaved four years off Marie Hess' sentence Thursday.

Hess, 47, was first sentenced more than a decade ago after admitting that she killed her husband, Jimmy, a Burlington Township patrolman, on Aug. 19, 1999.

The high court found that her rights were violated at her sentencing because her lawyer was barred from asking for leniency and from arguing that she suffered from Battered Woman Syndrome.

Hess had pleaded guilty to aggravated manslaughter and the terms of her plea bargain improperly prohibited her lawyer from asking for less than 30 years, the court said.

When Hess was resentenced Thursday in Mount Holly, Superior Court Judge Jeanne T. Covert meted out a term of 26 years. Hess has already served 13 years. She must serve 85 percent of the sentence before becoming eligible for parole.

Covert said she was adhering to the "strict guidance" of the high court and had to weigh the remarks of the prosecutor, who she said portrayed Hess as "a cold-blooded killer," and those of the defense, which painted Hess as "a woman who suffered longtime abuse and who killed her husband for relief."

Last month, Hess pleaded guilty - again - to a charge of aggravated manslaughter.

But this time the plea agreement called for a maximum of 27 years in state prison. Hess admitted that she shot her husband, who was 35, once in the head while he was sleeping in their home in Burlington Township. She contended he had threatened to kill her.

The judge said the plea was negotiated because both sides recognized the risk of going to trial.

"No one will ever know with certainty what happened," the judge said.

About 40 relatives and friends of Hess and the victim packed the courtroom during the emotional hearing.

Covert said that she took into consideration the report of a psychologist at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility in Trenton who evaluated Hess and determined that she was a victim of physical and psychological abuse. But the judge also said she recognized that the psychologist, Dawn M. Hughes, made this finding based strictly on Hess' account and that Hess has changed her story several times.

Hess, wearing an orange prison jumpsuit and handcuffs, meekly read from a piece of paper that shook in her hands.

"I'd like to apologize to the Hesses for all the pain and suffering. . . . I've gone to therapy and if I knew then what I know now, things would have been different," she said in her brief statement. In a handwritten letter to the judge she explained that she now has the "insight, strength, and skills" to understand that she should have "walked away when his first punch hit my body."

Assistant Burlington County Prosecutor Mark Westfall said Hess' "story of abuse is a story of fiction. . . . It's a story told by a woman who thought nothing of lying."

Westfall said that when Hess confessed the day after the murder, she told police that her husband had been drinking and had held a gun to her head. Toxicology reports, he said, did not back her up.

While in prison, Westfall said, Hess took "the only thing the man had left, his good name, his reputation." She killed him because she was afraid he was going to leave her, the prosecutor said.

Kevin Walker, deputy public defender, said Hess has been an exemplary prisoner who counsels and works daily with fellow women inmates who also had suffered abuse. He said Hess' abuse "was real. . . . That's the sad reality, and I don't expect a zealous prosecutor or the victim's family to accept that."

Eight family members and friends of Jimmy Hess gave emotional speeches during the hearing. But this time, they did not play a video depicting his life.

The high court said in its ruling that the 17-minute video they had shown at the 2001 hearing, as Beatles songs and religious music played in the background, had the potential to "unduly arouse or inflame emotions."

Ruth Hess, the victim's mother, sobbed when she told the judge Thursday that her son's "life was taken away by someone he loved and trusted. . . . Her sentence should be life in prison, no parole."

William Murphy, a family friend who would go hunting and fishing with Marie and Jimmy Hess, said he noticed that "they would argue, yes, but he was never abusive."

Marie Hess' only sister, Theresa Merkle, asked the judge for understanding.

Fighting back tears, Merkle said that the sisters grew up in a home with a controlling father who mentally abused them. She believed her sister's husband also abused her, turning her into "a shy, afraid little girl."

"My sister made a terrible mistake. . . . I beg you to make it justice that fits the crime," she said.

After the sentence was handed down, Walker said that his client had "accepted the judgment of the court and wants to move on with her life and return to state prison to minister to the women there."

She has been in the Burlington County Minimum Security Facility awaiting her resentencing for the last year.

Contact Jan Hefler at 856-779-3224 or or @JanHefler on Twitter. Read her blog at .

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