State tries to void plea bargain Killer's accomplice in trooper's death could be free in 2003

December 19, 1997|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

Prosecutors tried yesterday to persuade a Howard County judge to void a once-secret plea bargain with the accomplice of the killer of Maryland state trooper Theodore D. Wolf, saying the judge was misled when he agreed to the deal six years ago.

Troopers packed the courtroom as Carroll County State's Attorney Jerry F. Barnes argued that Francisco Rodriguez should not benefit from the plea agreement, which traded his cooperation for a 15-year prison term.

Barnes told Circuit Judge Raymond J. Kane Jr. that Kane might not have approved the controversial plea bargain if he had known more about the situation at the time.

"All these things could have impacted the court's decision," Barnes said after noting a long list of facts he said were not brought to the court's attention. Barnes is acting as a special prosecutor as he investigates the plea negotiations at the request of the Howard state's attorney office.

Yesterday's hearing was the latest move in the battle to strike down the plea bargain made with the accomplice of the killer of Wolf, who was shot twice in the head March 29, 1990, after stopping Rodriguez and Eric Tirado for speeding on Interstate 95 in Jessup.

The victim's widow and law enforcement agencies have criticized as too lenient the agreement negotiated by Howard County prosecutors under a prior administration.

Rodriguez argues that he has kept his end of the bargain and that the deal should be implemented.

Rodriguez, who pleaded guilty to participating in the murder, could be released from federal prison in 2003, prosecutors said, after finishing a sentence on an unrelated drug conviction.

The plea agreement allows him to have his life sentence reduced to 15 years -- the same as the drug sentence -- once all the appeal rights of the convicted trigger man, Eric Tirado, are exhausted.

"This is the opportunity for the judge to right a serious wrong," said Patrick Jameson, president of the State Law Enforcement Officers Labor Alliance, who attended yesterday's hearing. "The state's attorney's office is supposed to be there to protect the victims and their families."

Barnes was named special prosecutor because one of the Howard prosecutors who made the deal under the previous administration is still working in the office.

Howard State's Attorney Marna McLendon said she wanted to avoid the appearance of any conflict of interest.

Kane said he will decide within two days whether the plea bargain will stand.

Barnes told Kane it was never disclosed that Rodriguez had three prior felony convictions in New York, one for assaulting a police officer.

Rodriguez gave conflicting statements, Barnes said. He said at first that he was an innocent bystander but later said he had discussed Wolf's murder and handed the weapon to Tirado, Barnes said.

Tirado was convicted of first-degree murder in 1991 and sentenced to life in prison.

Barnes said the judge might not have known that Rodriguez told his girlfriend he had ordered the shooting but that Tirado had carried it out.

The Wolf family was always vigorously opposed to the plea bargain, Barnes said.

"I am not certain that this was pointed out to this court," he said.

Ginni Wolf, the victim's widow, said that because the plea agreement was secret until August, she and others associated with the case were forbidden from disclosing its details.

She said prosecutors told her she could be charged with criminal contempt if she told anyone what the deal was.

"I could see that Francisco would be out walking the street and I would be in jail on a contempt charge," Wolf said outside court yesterday.

She said she begged the judge not to accept the plea agreement when it was made.

Assistant Public Defender Thomas Saunders, who represents Rodriguez, said the fact that some issues did not come to the court's attention at the time does not constitute the fraud that is required to void a plea agreement. Saunders said Rodriguez was never asked about his past.

Saunders has said the state's attempt to get out of the agreement results from emotions and politics, not from the law involved.

"There are certain strong emotions, and they are [combining] in an attempt to find fraud," Saunders said yesterday.

Pub Date: 12/19/97

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