Coming to terms with a bad deal Plea: State can't renege on agreement that gained testimony against trooper's murderer.

January 21, 1998

CIRCUIT COURT JUDGE Raymond J. Kane Jr. reached the only possible conclusion he could in rejecting a move to void a controversial plea agreement between state prosecutors and a man who was an accomplice in the 1990 murder of state police Cpl. Theodore D. Wolf of Glen Burnie.

The deal was crafted under the direction of former Howard County State's Attorney William R. Hymes. It called for Francisco Rodriguez of the Bronx to plead guilty to first-degree murder and receive a life sentence in exchange for his cooperation in the prosecution of Eric Tirado, the gunman in Corporal Wolf's murder.

The deal, however, provided for Rodriguez's sentence to be shortened to 15 years after Tirado was convicted and exhausted his appeals.

All of that has happened. Unfortunately, the judge sealed the agreement at the time, preventing the public from learning about its terms for almost six years. Keeping this information secret was a disservice to the public's right to know how justice was being dispensed.

Once it became public, Howard County State's Attorney Marna McLendon and Carroll County State's Attorney Jerry F. Barnes, who served as special prosecutor in trying to overturn the plea agreement, criticized the ruling. They argued the agreement should be voided because Rodriguez gave authorities contradictory statements. Judge Kane made no finding of fraud in his Jan. 14 opinion, but stated that if that occurred, the state did not do its job.

Judge Kane correctly said the state is bound by its deal. Ms. McLendon and Mr. Barnes cannot divorce themselves from Mr. Hymes' agreement and strike a new one.

Plea bargains are reached in most criminal cases. Without them, as the U.S. Supreme Court noted in 1971, every arrest would result in a full trial, and "state and federal courts would be flooded, while court facilities as well as personnel would have to be multiplied many times over to handle the increased burden."

These agreements also must be binding, once accepted by a judge. Without such assurance, "the chilling effect upon the very institution of plea bargaining would be devastating," the Maryland Court of Appeals has stated. There is no precedent in Maryland for revisiting a plea deal approved by a judge. Nor should there be.

Pub Date: 1/21/98

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