Tirado plea deal was rejected Decision to seek death penalty costly for state.

August 09, 1991|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,Evening Sun Staff Thomas W. Waldron contributed to this story.

The state of Maryland spent hundreds of thousands of dollars for something it could have gotten for nothing -- a sentence of life without parole for Eric Joseph Tirado.

Before the month-long trial this summer, Tirado's defense lawyer said his client would plead guilty to murdering a state trooper if the Howard County state's attorney's office would agree to a sentence of life without parole and abandon its pursuit of the death penalty.

That revelation came Wednesday when State Public Defender Stephen E. Harris testified before a joint state House-Senate subcommittee that is studying spending for public safety and transportation.

Harris told the panel that the prosecution's refusal to accept the plea forced his office to spend "a couple hundred thousand dollars" to defend Tirado. There was no immediate estimate of the tab for the prosecution, which is understood to have been considerable.

A Howard County jury last month sentenced Tirado to life in prison without parole after convicting him of killing State Police Cpl. Theodore D. Wolf during a traffic stop on Interstate 95 in Jessup in March 1990.

Mark A. Van Bavel, Tirado's attorney, would not comment on pre-trial discussions.

But Thomas E. Saunders, chief of the public defender's capital crimes division, said the Tirado trial was just one of many cases in which state prosecutors have rejected life-without-parole deals to go to trial in quest of the death penalty.

"It is an expensive and complicated choice to commit all those resources," said Saunders, whose office paid Van Bavel its maximum $12,500 in attorneys' fees to defend Tirado and is awaiting bills for expert witnesses and travel and investigation expenses.

William R. Hymes, the state's attorney for Howard County, could not be reached for comment on the decision to reject the plea and the cost of prosecuting Tirado. He had said earlier this year that the criminal trial would be among the most expensive in county history.

The trial cost his office months of work by two of his top prosecutors who investigated and tried the case. Other expenses could be incurred for bringing in witnesses, some of whom traveled from other states, and for expert testimony.

The state also paid to protect a key prosecution witness. Edgar Duvarie, a former Tirado co-worker who testified against him, told the jury that Maryland State Police relocated him to a Maryland apartment, paid the rent and furnished it.

The state also had to pay jurors for six weeks of listening to testimony and deliberating and court costs.

Despite the potential costs, Saunders said the state's attorney's decision to reject Tirado's plea offer was not an unusual move for prosecutors in a death-penalty case.

In 1989, he said, he offered to accept a life without parole sentence for his client, Duane Richardson, of Cockeysville, if Baltimore County prosecutors would agree not to seek the death penalty on charges that he murdered a co-worker at the Holiday Inn in Baynesville.

The prosecution rejected the plea and gained a conviction against Richardson, but the jury was forced to render a life sentence, with the possibility of parole, because it was deadlocked on whether he should get a death penalty.

"In numerous cases we have to go through really expensive trials, and most of the times we end up where we started or better off," said Saunders.

Del. Robert L. Flanagan, a member of the joint subcommittee that met Wednesday, said yesterday that the money used to prosecute and defend Tirado could have been better spent.

"We've got to recognize that even in the area of law enforcement and incarceration that we are dealing with limited resources, and we have to use those resources prudently," the delegate said. "The $200,000 [cost to defend Tirado] could have gone to increase the number of drug tests of people on the street who are repeat offenders."

He said, however, that Hymes had to consider political factors.

"People want to see the death penalty imposed. What we have to do is educate the public," Flanagan said. "There are good arguments for pursuing the death penalty, and I'm sure that Mrs. Wolf -- even though the jury didn't give the death penalty -- is glad the prosecution sought it."

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