Widow fights plea bargain Killer's accomplice could be freed from prison

October 10, 1997|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

Six years after a New York man was sent to prison for murdering a Maryland state trooper, the victim's widow and law enforcement agencies are fighting a once-secret plea bargain they say will let his killer's accomplice off the hook.

Today, a Howard County circuit judge will hear arguments that some hope will lead to the voiding of that plea agreement and send Francisco Rodriguez, 27, to prison for the rest of his life.

Rodriguez, who admitted participating in the 1990 murder of state police Cpl. Theodore Wolf, could be released from federal prison in 2003, prosecutors say, after finishing a sentence on an unrelated drug conviction.

Ginni Wolf, the victim's widow, said that because of the plea bargain negotiated by Howard County prosecutors, Rodriguez will not spend a single day in jail for her husband's murder.

"I don't believe anyone should get away with murder, which is how this plea agreement reads," Wolf said.

Some law enforcement agencies, victims' groups and state delegates agree.

The plea agreement, which had been secret until August, trades Rodriguez's cooperation with prosecutors against his partner for a prison sentence of no longer than 15 years, time that Rodriguez already had to spend in prison because of another case.

"Whoever made this deal, made a crummy deal," said state Del. Michael W. Burns, an Anne Arundel County Republican who sits on the judiciary committee. "I'm not surprised that people are cynical about the judicial system when cop-killers and their accomplices are getting secret plea agreements and nobody knows about it."

Added Patrick Jameson, president of the State Law Enforcement Officers Labor Alliance: "This plea is a total insult to the state police and everyone else."

The Howard County state's attorney's office is asking the court today to appoint a special prosecutor to determine whether the agreement should be nullified on grounds that Rodriguez lied during a police interview.

Byron Warknen, an attorney representing Ginni Wolf, presented the legal argument to the state's attorney's office during the summer.

"We don't know if it's a viable theory," said Howard State's Attorney Marna McLendon. "I'm just trying to make sure we as an office now try to do as much justice as we can."

"I do not condone the plea agreement," she said, "and I would not have entered into it myself."

McLendon said she is asking for a special prosecutor because all the people who were privy to the plea agreement must be interviewed. One of the prosecutors who handled part of the agreement, Michael Rexroad, is still in her office and she wants to avoid any conflict of interest.

The prosecutor who signed the agreement, Timothy G. Wolf, is now a defense attorney in Ellicott City. He declined to comment yesterday. He is not related to the slain trooper. Efforts to reach other members of the former administration were unsuccessful.

Five years ago, when Rodriguez pleaded guilty to first-degree murder, he was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole. But terms of the agreement -- those allowing him to be released after serving his drug sentence if he agrees to testify against his partner in any possible retrials or appeals -- were sealed.

His partner, Eric Tirado, also of New York, was convicted of first-degree murder in July 1991. Tirado shot Wolf twice in the face when he stopped the pair traveling in a stolen car at 4 a.m. on Interstate 95 in March 1990. Tirado was sentenced to life without parole.

Rodriguez did not testify at the trial or any retrial, but his attorney, Thomas J. Saunders, said his client cooperated fully with prosecutors throughout the case and was available as a witness. His client has held up his end of the bargain and the plea agreement is binding, Saunders said.

"We can't go back and second-guess whether it should have been done," Saunders said. "The state's attorney wanted to get the other defendant. They cut the plea they did."

A legal expert agreed with Saunders' assessment. Douglas Colbert, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law, said he did not see any grounds for nullifying the agreement. Plea agreements are common in criminal law and this one made perfect sense from the perspective of the state, he said. "They thought this guy was going to help them."

He added: "It is the state of Maryland who is prosecuting someone, not the individual. It shouldn't matter who the state's attorney was people are bound to honor the commitments of their predecessor."

Still, what troubles many about the case is the veil of secrecy that surrounded it.

"This is where we have a breakdown in the system," said state Del. James M. Harkins, a Harford County Republican who is on the commission examining criminal sentencing in Maryland. "If there was ever an example of why we should look at sentencing in Maryland, this is it [the prosecutors] gave up too much."

Pub Date: 10/10/97

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