Eric Joseph Tirado, convicted of killing Maryland State Police Cpl. Theodore D. Wolf during a traffic stop, faces the same jury again next week and a possible death sentence.
Just before 8 p.m. yesterday, a Howard County Circuit Court jury found Tirado guilty of premeditated murder in the first degree in the shooting of Wolf. Prosecutors are asking for the death penalty. The sentencing phase begins next Thursday.
As the verdicts were announced last night, Wolf's widow, Virginia, wept briefly in the front row of the courtroom. Silently, she hugged family and friends and, after the jurors filed out, hugged prosecutors and state troopers who had packed the courtroom on their own time to learn the outcome.
Walking out into the muggy evening, Mrs. Wolf said she was happy about the verdict and said attending the trial since it began June 17 "sort of puts everything in perspective, knowing how everything happened."
Tirado was accused of pulling the trigger in the murder, which happened March 29, 1990, after Corporal Wolf stopped him and another man, Francisco Rodriguez, for speeding on Interstate 95 near Jessup in a car that later proved to be stolen. The men were returning home to the Bronx, N.Y., after a trip to Maryland and Virginia.
The jury's guilty verdict came after more than five hours of deliberation. Besides first-degree murder, they found Tirado guilty of three other charges: robbery with a deadly weapon in taking Wolf's traffic ticket book; use of a handgun in committing the felony murder; and use of a handgun in committing the robbery.
Tirado, 27, a neatly barbered man in gray slacks and a sharp patterned sweater, sat impassively as the jurors were polled. Each said he was guilty.
Sgt. Thomas Coppinger, a State Police investigator in the case who had been a good friend of Wolf, said the sentencing of Tirado would "send a big message" to all troopers.
"I'd like to see him get the death penalty," Coppinger said. "I
think that's what he deserves. I expected some remorse out of him. At this point, he's shown none."
Prosecutors closed their arguments yesterday afternoon by reviewing evidence about the bloodstains and fingerprints in the case. Fingerprints on the driver's side door of the 1988 blue Nova that had been stolen in Alexandria, Va., suggested Tirado broke into the car and started it for a quick getaway, said prosecutor Michael Rexroad.
Passing motorists testified they saw Tirado in the driver's seat at the traffic stop.
Who was driving is important because when Wolf brought the two men into his cruiser, Rexroad said, it would have been police practice to put the driver, the one getting the ticket, in the front passenger seat. A police expert witness said the first of two shots was fired from the front seat, hit Wolf's mouth, passed through his head and made a hole in the driver's-side door post cover.
On the driver's side of the Nova, Rexroad said, "there's blood almost streaming down the side of the door." And Tirado's fingerprint was in the blood, he said.
An expert witness testified that the first shot to the mouth would have filled Wolf's mouth with blood, but none would have shown externally at first. Unsure where the shot went, Tirado fired again at Wolf's cheek, exploding the blood that was welling up inside, Rexroad said. "It was like a bullet striking a water container," he said.
Confirming all this, Rexroad said, was the testimony of Edgar BTC Duvarie, a former co-worker and friend of Tirado, who said Tirado and Rodriguez together told him a few days later that Tirado committed the murder.
Rexroad urged the jury to find that Tirado had thought about his actions before committing them. "This is the coldest of cold blood," he said.
Defense attorney Mark Van Bavel had tried to introduce sufficient doubt about who did the shooting and to indicate that Rodriguez, who will be tried later, had done it.
In his closing arguments to the jury, Van Bavel suggested that the State Police were too overwrought by the murder of one of their comrades to conduct an impartial investigation of the crime.
He singled out Wolf's friend Coppinger. "I think it difficult for anyone in that situation to look at that case with a clear and unprejudiced eye," Van Bavel said, proposing instead that the state quickly developed a theory and bent the investigation toward it.
Maybe Rodriguez was the driver, Van Bavel said. Maybe Wolf never asked the two men to get into his cruiser, Van Bavel said, because the police do that only when they see a more complicated situation than a routine speeding ticket. But Wolf never radioed the stop into headquarters, he said, and the car had not been stolen long enough for the owner to have reported it missing.
Possibly no one got into Wolf's car, Van Bavel said, proposing that it would be unlikely for someone sitting in the cruiser's passenger seat to draw a gun from his waistband, press it to Wolf's lips and fire without some reaction from Wolf.
"And Corporal Wolf is going to remain in a relaxed position with all this?" Van Bavel said, recalling that Wolf was found with his legs crossed and a pen in his hand, apparently still writing the ticket. "He's not going to swipe out at the gun?"
Perhaps Rodriguez approached the cruiser while Wolf was writing the ticket and shot him then. "Did Francisco Rodriguez start acting out again?" Van Bavel asked, referring to testimony that Rodriguez had been in a rage hours before the crime and had said he would kill anyone who got in his way.
"It all fits; it's another theory," Van Bavel told the jury. "Do you have a reasonable doubt?"
Van Bavel conceded that his client was guilty of being an accessory after the fact to murder because he was in collusion with Rodriguez in escaping and trying to conceal the crime.
"Eric Tirado is not a sympathetic defendant," Van Bavel said. "He was at the scene of the crime."