Would Tirado be on death row if the jury heard everything?

MICHAEL OLESKER

August 04, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

All through the long week, you heard the talk everywhere: The Eric Tirado jury went soft. When the convicted killer of state trooper Ted Wolf got life in prison instead of death in the gas chamber, a message seemed to be dispatched to all who slay at random: Nobody in Maryland pays the ultimate price for murder.

You heard it on the radio talk shows, and people sent angry letters to the editor. Around police stations and courthouses, a sense of veiled rage hung in the air.

And on Interstate 95 near Jessup, by the patch of highway where Wolf was shot in the head while writing Tirado a speeding ticket, someone left a hand-lettered sign that seemed a bitter howl of protest: "An Eye for An Eye."

A few in the Tirado jury defended their decision in public. After listening to all of the arguments, they said, there were still some nagging doubts: Was it, finally, Tirado who pulled the trigger, or was it his accomplice? Could there have been some untold story that prompted the shooting?

"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," a juror named Mark Smalley told Sun reporter Michael J. Clark.

"There is no question [Tirado] was there and was a participant to the crime," added juror Lloyd Perrault. "He was the shooter beyond any legal reasonable doubt, but since we were considering the death penalty, we felt an extra burden."

Perrault looks like a sensitive man. All through the final morning of trial, he sat in the jury box and glanced toward the families of both Ted Wolf and Eric Tirado, who sat at opposite ends of the front row of courtroom seats.

Emotions were spilling all over the place. Prosecutors read from a heart-breaking statement of Virginia Wolf's, telling how traumatized she's been by her husband's death. Tirado's family held handkerchiefs to their faces and wept at their son's future.

And Eric Tirado stood before the jury and sobbed uncontrollably for his life, and in his speech you saw two extraordinary things happening:

He'd tossed aside all of the pseudo-tough armor almost all criminal defendants wear in court, the false bravado that keeps them from showing any emotion, any sense of weakness. Tirado was a man stripped to his emotional skin, all raw and bleeding and begging forgiveness.

But he never said he didn't shoot Ted Wolf.

"Oh, God, help me," he wept as he sat down after five minutes of pleading for mercy. For a moment, there was silence. All emotion had been sapped.

And yet, as you looked over the notes of what he'd just said, what was there?

He said he was sorry he'd caused pain for his family and for Ted Wolf's family. He said he wasn't a bad person. He said he felt terrible for his young son. He said again and again that he didn't want to die.

If I'm in Eric Tirado's shoes, and I'm begging 12 strangers to have mercy on me in the case of a human being's murder, I'm going to say something else. I'm going to scream at these strangers who hold my life in their hands:

"A terrible mistake has been made here. I don't care what you're DTC thinking, I don't care what you've heard. I didn't do it. I don't care what the evidence says. I didn't do it. I swear to God I didn't do it, and I swear it to you, and I'll swear it to anyone who will listen. I didn't do it."

But he never said anything about the shooting.

Is all of this an argument that Tirado should have gotten the death penalty? I'm not sure, so let's take this a step further. Let's put ourselves in that jury room, and let's be honest that we were touched by Tirado's fervent plea for mercy, his pathetic gasp for life, his apparently genuine apology to Ted Wolf's survivors.

There's something the jury did not know. The previous week, Tirado and Virginia Wolf had mistakenly crossed paths outside the Howard County Courthouse. Tirado flashed Mrs. Wolf a familiar digital obscenity, a universal gesture of contempt.

Judge Raymond Kane refused to allow testimony about the incident. So the jury never knew about it. Was the incident separate from the shooting? Of course. But was it separate from Eric Tirado's state of mind? Did it reflect an aspect of his personality a jury might consider in sentencing?

Now put yourself back in that jury room. Yes, you were moved by Tirado's plea for mercy. How could you sentence a nice young man like this to the gas chamber?

But, instead of that singular plea, you've now got this unexpected testimony to consider: He apologized to Mrs. Wolf in court, but he showed her contempt when almost no one was looking.

The blood boils at such a thought. The heart wishes retribution: ++ not only for the pain and contempt inflicted on Mrs. Wolf, but for the nerve of Tirado trying to float a phony apology.

It is the final straw, it wipes out his little show of contrition, it shows us his true nature: Give him the gas chamber.

And yet, a little voice wonders: If we do this, if we allow this show of his contempt to finally put us over the edge, aren't we then sentencing him to death -- instead of life in prison -- for holding up a finger?

Such arguments can drive you nuts. What consoles us is this: Eric Tirado only thinks he got a break. Instead of dying all at once, he will spend the rest of his life dying a little bit more with each sunrise.

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