Murder trial: Prosecution rests; defense presents alibi
The murder trial of Heather Hoffman resumed Monday at the Ward County Courthouse with the defense arguing a prosecution witness was the one who shot and killed the father of Hoffman’s child, Alexander Eckert.
Defense attorney Steve Mottinger called four witnesses Monday afternoon, including a man who used to date Hoffman, her mother, Diane Hoffman, her sister, Amber Vadala, and her brother-in-law, Eric Vadala. They testified in support of an alibi and the defense’s theory that key prosecution witness Jessie Schroeder, who claimed to witness Hoffman shoot Eckert, was the one to actually pull the trigger.
Diane Hoffman said she was aware her daughter had arranged a straw purchase for a firearm at the Minot Gun Show in the weeks before the shooting but stated she had demanded the gun be removed from the home they shared. The gun in question was described by Eric Vadala as “a piece of crap sidearm” that was unsafe for anyone to possess.
“It was rusted and looked like something you’d get at a gun show. I remember, specifically, it didn’t have a safety lock,” Vadala said. “I told her to get rid of it. Whoever has it, needs to get rid of it, because someone could get hurt with it.”
Diane Hoffman testified she had witnessed a transaction during which her daughter sold the firearm to Schroeder. Hoffman placed this interaction to have occurred about a week after it was purchased at the gun show.
“I watched her hand over the gun to Jessie. Jessie gave her a little bouncy toy for the baby to sit in and some cash,” Diane Hoffman said.
The three witnesses all testified to their knowledge of Hoffman’s relationship with Eckert, and her comings and goings on the night of April 21, 2022. All shared their recollections of various interactions with Hoffman that evening, during which she complained of having a headache and spent most of the night sleeping in her nephew’s bedroom. When the timeline was questioned by Assistant States Attorney Christopher Nelson on redirect, all three witnesses maintained they had no awareness of her leaving the residence that night when the shooting occurred.
The defense testimony came after the state brought its final witnesses to the stand. The state recalled Minot Police Officer Amanda Sommerville to review a report of possible child abuse by Hoffman against her alleged victim. Sommerville testified the report had little merit, so no charges were filed.
A member of the Minot Air Force Bases’s security team testified to working at the Magic City Gate on the night Hoffman was allegedly smuggled onto the base following Eckert’s shooting death. The officer testified the driver of the vehicle had a valid security pass and there hadn’t been probable cause to search the vehicle further.
The prosecution had called 26 witnesses, with the final witness being Dr. Bernie Miller, a medical examiner from the State Crime Laboratory in Bismarck. Miller had performed the autopsy on Eckert and testified regarding his cause of death and the nature of his injury.
“Initially when he arrived, he had a lot of blood on his face. Upon cleaning that up, I identified a gunshot entrance wound through his nostril along with a lot of stippling on his face,” Miller said.
Stippling is a residue left by a gun being fired at close range to its target. Eckert’s death was determined to have been caused by a bullet that entered through his face at an upward angle, passing through his brainstem. Miller’s testimony regarding the stippling, the 45-degree angle of the shot and the relative height difference between Eckert and Hoffman was highlighted by State’s Attorney Roza Larson in support of the allegation that Hoffman was the one holding the gun.
The defense planned one additional witness today and the state indicated it would call three rebuttal witnesses. The wrap-up witnesses are expected to testify this morning, with closing arguments and jury instructions to follow.
At the start of Monday’s proceedings, North Central District Judge Gary Lee dismissed a juror who notified the court that she was acquainted with Amber Vadala through Girl Scout activities. Lee conferred with the prosecution and defense before ruling that the juror be replaced by one of the two alternates who had been observing testimony during the trial.