Tirado jury defends prison term Doubts centered on who pulled trigger

July 31, 1991|By Michael J. Clark | Michael J. Clark,Howard County Bureau of The Sun

Lingering doubt over whether Eric Joseph Tirado was the trigger man in the shooting of a Maryland state trooper was a key factor in a Howard County jury's decision not to give the Bronx, N.Y., man the death penalty, jurors said yesterday.

During the eight hours of deliberation Monday night, less than half of the 12 jurors favored the death penalty, prompting one juror to say "it was not even close."

Juror Lloyd Perrault, a computer analyst from Columbia, said there was still some "lingering question" in the jurors' minds after hearing the state's circumstantial case on whether the 27-year-old defendant was the trigger man in the March 29, 1990, shooting of Cpl. Theodore D. Wolf during a traffic stop on Interstate 95 near Jessup.

Several jurors said they would have gone with the death penalty if there had been "more absolute truth," said Mark Smalley, an electrical engineer from Columbia.

He said the crucial issue for him came down "to one of finality. If Eric was put to death, and we found out later that some testimony was flawed or there was new evidence, it would be too late. What it comes down to is that several of the jurors did not want to be a party to a possibility -- even mathematically remote -- of making a decision that was not right."

The testimony of a key state witness, Edgar Duvarie, a former friend of the defendant, who said Tirado told him he had done the killing, was "believable to a reasonable doubt, but not the same as it would be if you had a videotape of the shooting," Mr. Smalley said.

Mr. Perrault said that life without parole "was a fair verdict" for Tirado.

"There is no question he was there and was a participant to the crime," Mr. Perrault said. "He was the shooter beyond any legal reasonable doubt, but since we were considering the death penalty, we felt an extra burden."

But some of his co-workers let him know they did not agree with the verdict.

"People at work kept hitting me with the accusation that we were cowards because [we] could not sentence him to death," Mr. Perrault said. "I am tired of explaining how complicated the situation in a capital case is and the need to follow the law, which we did."

The jury had an eight-page work sheet to go over in which they listed and weighed the "aggravating" and "mitigating" factors tied to imposing the death penalty.

Inside the jury room, the calm approach taken during the five hours it took to convict Tirado of first-degree murder was altered by the burden of deciding whether to impose death, Mr. Smalley said.

"It was like somebody had turned up a notch on intensity," he said. "The statements were very emotional, and opinions differed quite a bit on what were mitigating circumstances and what were not."

Mr. Perrault said the only regret he had was the impact the sentence had on Virginia Wolf, the widow of the slain trooper. "I believe Mrs. Wolf was looking for closure, and it is unfortunate, but I did not feel we could give her that. The case was not there for a death penalty."

Mrs. Wolf said she regretted afterward that she did not have the opportunity to take the stand to tell the jurors the impact of the crime on her family as a counter to testimony from the convicted killer and hisfamily, who went before to jury and tearfully begged the jury for mercy. Instead, the jurors received typed victim impact statements from Mrs. Wolf and Leroy and Jane Wolf, parents of the murdered trooper. Prosecutors read excerpts to the jury during closing arguments.

Her live testimony "would have balanced the scales a little bit," Mrs. Wolf said.

But Mr. Perrault said, "It would not have changed the outcome."

And Mr. Smalley said he was affected by her written statement. "It was eloquent and very moving." He said all the jurors read over herthree-page statement during deliberation.

According to the prosecutors, Timothy Wolf and Michael Rexroad, they decided against going with Mrs. Wolf's live testimony over concern that the appellate courts might use that as a potential legal point for overturning a death sentence, if it had been imposed.

In any event, Mark Van Bavel, the panel attorney hired by the public defender's office to represent Tirado, said the conviction and life without parole sentence of Tirado will be appealed, and if there had been live testimony by Mrs. Wolf that likely would have been one of the grounds for appeal as well.

In the aftermath of the trial, Mrs. Wolf said the insights she gained from her front row seat at the five-week-long trial have led her to consider becoming an advocate for victim rights in Maryland.

"If the law is unclear about allowing live testimony in capital cases, the next step is to fix it for the next person," she said.

She said the trial also made her realize the importance of sufficient media scrutiny for all cases.

"I am kind of upset that I am getting all this publicity and other victims of crime get no public mention," she said. "It makes them feel as if their person is a nobody and that's not right. Every case is just as important."

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