A Howard County judge denied yesterday a request by The Sun and one other news organization to make public the plea agreement of Francisco Rodriguez, a participant in the murder of state police Cpl. Theodore D. Wolf.
Circuit Judge Raymond J. Kane Jr. agreed with the state that there was a compelling interest to keep terms of the plea closed, although he did unseal several minor portions with permission of the state.
The Sun intervened after the agreement was sealed Jan. 24 following Rodriguez's guilty plea to first-degree murder in the March 1990 shooting death of Corporal Wolf. Rodriguez, 21, of the Bronx, N.Y., was sentenced to life in prison.
Mary R. Craig, The Sun's attorney, argued at yesterday's hearing that the newspaper's First Amendment rights had been violated because the state failed to give notice that it intended to seal the plea or to offer a specific reason why it should be sealed.
"This case has attracted widespread public interest, the widow of the victim has been quite active in discussing the case in the press," Ms. Craig said. "The state's attorney has an obligation not only to prosecute but to consider the public interest."
The state disagreed.
"There is an absolute compelling need not to have this matter disclosed at this time," argued Assistant State's Attorney Michael Rexroad.
Ms. Craig said it was uncertain whether The Sun or Fox Channel 45, the other participant in yesterday's hearing, would appeal Judge Kane's decision to the state Court of Special Appeals.
The portions of the plea that were released yesterday confirmed that Rodriguez, who is serving a federal sentence on unrelated drug charges, could be eligible for parole on the murder sentence in 15 years under Maryland parole guidelines. The sentences are concurrent.
At Rodriguez's sentencing hearing, the defense urged Judge Kane to seal the plea agreement to protect Rodriguez, according to a transcript.
Rodriguez's attorney, Robert E. Morin, told Judge Kane that the agreement should be sealed because Rodriguez "will be cooperating with law enforcement authorities and he has -- will be exposing himself to considerable danger if that is made known," the transcript said.