Panel hears bill to expand death penalty Legislation would allow execution of accomplice

February 13, 1997|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

Under current Maryland law, only the person who pulls the trigger in the murder of a police officer can be sentenced to death.

But if the governor, the state police and the families of two slain troopers have their way, accomplices also will die.

"When somebody murders a police officer, they're not just killing a person, they're spitting on our system of law and order," Ginni Wolf, the widow of a state trooper who was slain in 1990, told legislators yesterday.

Wolf wants the General Assembly to pass a bill that would allow Maryland's courts to give death sentences to those convicted of conspiring in, or proved to have prior knowledge of, a plan to slay a police officer.

Bills have been introduced in the House of Delegates and Senate at the request of the Glendening administration to make that possible. But the legislation found few supporters during a hearing yesterday before the House Judiciary Committee in Annapolis.

Instead, it drew fire from public defenders, religious groups, an official of the American Civil Liberties Union and ordinary citizens.

They said they feared that innocent people might be sentenced to death because they were at the scene though they never intended to participate in the slaying of an officer.

Moreover, they said, the bill would "take retribution and turn it into vengeance."

"This legislation would expand the death penalty beyond its constitutional limits," said Dwight Sullivan, staff counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.

Donna Shearer, an assistant public defender in the Maryland Public Defender's Office, said that because of constitutional concerns, such a statute could result in lawsuits against the state.

"It is that requirement that you must shoot the gun or wield the knife that insulates Maryland's law from challenge," Shearer said.

Wolf and supporters argued that the legislation could act as a deterrent to the slaying of police officers. She said the penalty proposed in the bill could have applied to a man who was involved in the death of her husband, Cpl. Theodore D. Wolf, who was shot in his cruiser by a motorist he had stopped for speeding.

A jury found Eric Joseph Tirado, the driver and gunman, guilty of first-degree murder, and he was sentenced to life without parole. His accomplice and passenger, Francisco Rodriquez, pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in exchange for a life sentence with the possibility of parole.

Wolf was infuriated by the fact that neither the gunman nor his accomplice was given the death penalty.

In another case described during the hearing, the convicted killer of Trooper Edward Plank, who was slain in 1995 under circumstances similar to Wolf's husband, was given the death penalty.

Plank's family said yesterday they believe the passenger in the car with gunman Ivan Fitzherbert Lovell, who is on death row, also should have been given the death penalty. But it was not proved that the passenger had any intention of participating in the slaying, police and a prosecutor said yesterday.

Maryland law enforcement leaders are pressing for the legislation as another "zero tolerance" measure -- now a popular term in the battle against crime.

Pub Date: 2/13/97

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