Donio called the case the "most bizarre" he had seen during his nearly two-decade tenure on the bench.
No physical evidence linked Goff to the killing, but the defendant said he was long consumed by guilt when he walked into the Galloway Township Police Department on April Fools' Day - police thought it was a prank at first - and confessed to the unsolved crime.
Goff, who had cried during previous court appearances, remained composed Friday and kept his gaze downward throughout most of the 90-minute proceedings until Tittermayer insisted that the defendant look at him as he spoke.
"If this was an eye-for-an-eye world, I would have watched you die. . . . I would have gladly watched the life escape from your body," Tittermayer said. "Your apology means nothing to me."
Hart's sisters, one in a statement read by a victim's advocate and the other speaking in court, noted how their red-haired "baby brother" had a difficult childhood but loved to dress up for Halloween and enjoyed listening to the band Poison. But his life was cut short, never allowing him to grow into a man, graduate from high school and college, or have his own family, they said.
"Steven, you took all that from us. Freddie was loved . . . he was ours," said Hart's sister Kate Sharkey.
Hart's niece Jessica Culp was only 9 when he was killed. She remembered a "cool uncle" who would play and talk with her.
"He [Goff] got to make choices my uncle never got to. . . . He's lived free longer than my uncle was alive and breathing on this Earth," said Culp, choking back tears. She continued to sob during the rest of the hearing.
Donio questioned Culp about whether Goff's confession and subsequent indictment, guilty plea, and sentencing would bring the family closure.
"It's reopened wounds after 23 years. . . . It's made it worse for me," Culp said, noting how Hart's mother had always kept a "shrine" to her slain son and she saw it whenever she would visit.
Goff, a competitive body builder when he attended Absegami High School with Hart, told investigators he was addicted to anabolic steroids when he took the victim into the woods behind the Galloway Township condos off Pitney Road where the two lived. He said he stabbed Hart twice in the torso and once in the upper back before leaving his body there.
Hart was reported missing by his family, and his body was found 18 months later by a hunter.
Goff, who was 18 at the time of the homicide, said he killed Hart because he thought the victim planned to confess to police about several burglaries the boys had allegedly committed together.
Goff was questioned in Hart's disappearance and subsequently served time for a burglary conviction. He allegedly made a jailhouse confession about the killing to another inmate. Family members said they were informed about the alleged confession but were unable to use the information to get Goff arrested.
Although the 30-year prison term had been part of a plea deal with the Atlantic County Prosecutor's Office, which downgraded the charge of first-degree murder to aggravated manslaughter, Goff's attorney, James Leonard Jr., made a motion to give the defendant more than three years of credit for time served during a previous incarceration on a burglary conviction.
But Donio denied the motion, saying he had contemplated giving Goff a briefer sentence but decided against it after hearing the "heart-wrenching" testimony of the victim's family and reading the defendant's full criminal history.
That record includes a "lengthy" juvenile record of 29 arrests, including 22 burglaries and thefts, and 11 adult arrests and six convictions before 1997, Donio said.
Contact Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-652-8382 or firstname.lastname@example.org.