For 15 months, Ginny Wolf had waited to attend the murder trial of the man accused of killing her husband, State Police Cpl. Theodore D. Wolf.
But on Monday, just as the trial of Eric Tirado was to beginbefore a packed courtroom in County Circuit Court, it looked like she might be barred from the trial. Tirado's lawyer asked that Mrs. Wolf be excluded because she was a possible witness in the case.
Wolf was prepared. She had hired a lawyer to argue for her right to be present.
Judge Raymond J. Kane Jr. agreed, and she remained in the courtroom.
"It was just the most important thing for me to be in there, and I did whatever I had to do," said Wolf, whose husband was shot during a traffic stop in March 1990.
Members of the Stephanie Roper Committee, a victims rights group that advised Wolf to hire the lawyer, say it has become routine for defense lawyers to ask that family members be excluded from courtrooms, usually by saying they could be called as witnesses. But the step often is a ploy to remove grieving family members from the view of jurors, and the defense has no intention of calling them to testify, according to the committee.
Of the trials the group monitors state wide, defense attorneys are successful in barring family members from the courtroom about 75 percent of the time, said Roper Committee victim coordinator Mary Jane Cook.
The practice violates a 1989 Maryland victims rights law, which prohibits banning victims or representatives of victims from the courtroom except for good cause, Cook said.
Roberta Roper, founder and director of the Stephanie Roper Committee, said she was "thrilled" by last week's ruling but disappointed that Wolf had to resort to hiring an attorney.
"It's unfortunate and sad that an innocent victim has to retain private counsel at her own expense to secure a right provided by state law," Roper said.
"The good news is that thecourt agreed and these kinds of court actions set precedents for thefuture."
County district public defender Carol A. Hanson said that defense attorneys do not typically try to have victims or their families excluded and that Roper's claim is an attempt to "smear" defense attorneys.
"We don't do that and I don't advise attorneys in this office to do it," Hanson said. "If I knew that any attorney in thisoffice were doing it, I would not permit it to happen."
She also said defense attorneys have a duty to see that the defendant gets a fair trial, and that includes making sure the jury remains impartial.
"The jury should not be swayed by emotional outbursts in the courtroom and conversations between family members," she said. "As defenseattorneys, we have to guard against any improper influence on the jury."
At a murder trial in March, Roper committee members said thatKane improperly barred the victim's mother from the courtroom after the defense said she was a potential witness.
Margaret Gouldin wasallowed to attend only the last day of testimony in the trial of Vernon Clark, who was convicted of killing her youngest daughter, Kathleen Gouldin. Mrs. Gouldin was never called to testify.
Wolf attended the entire Clark trial, and said she became determined not to be barred from the courtroom.
"It was more or less a safety net for me," she said of her decision to hire an attorney.
"I was afraid thatwhat happened to Margaret Gouldin would happen to me, and I didn't think I could handle it."
Gouldin says she still regrets not being present at Clark's trial, and she supports Mrs. Wolf's efforts.
"I'm glad she fought and got herself in there," Gouldin said. "She needs to know.
"When you're on the outside looking in, it's hard to determine if what people are telling you is true," she added. "I think the person who is the victim should be allowed to see and hear everything so they can make their own decision and settle their own mind."