Judge faults killer's deal 1992 plea arrangement would trim sentence of man who killed trooper

'State made a bad bargain'

But undoing mistake could be difficult, says chief of appeals court

November 03, 1998|By Dana Hedgpeth | Dana Hedgpeth,SUN STAFF

The chief judge of the Court of Special Appeals sharply criticized yesterday a 1992 plea agreement that would reduce the sentence of a man convicted in the murder of State Police Cpl. Theodore D. Wolf -- but the judge indicated it would be difficult to undo the deal.

Chief Judge Joseph F. Murphy said the judicial system must enforce plea arrangements, such as the one for convicted killer Francisco Rodriguez, made by prosecutors and defense attorneys.

"Somebody dropped the ball very badly in this case, and the question now is what can the judicial system do about it?" Murphy said at a hearing on the plea agreement. "The state made a bad bargain. This idea that it should be overturned is nonsense. They didn't have to deal with [Rodriguez] the way they did."

Court of Special Appeals Judge Ellen L. Hollander, another member of yesterday's three-judge panel, said she found the plea bargain "shocking." The panel did not rule yesterday.

The hourlong hearing in a packed courtroom in Annapolis was the latest in a series of efforts by law enforcement officials and Wolf's widow, Ginni Wolf of Glen Burnie, to get the courts to uphold Rodriguez's 1992 life sentence.

Ginni Wolf and a dozen state troopers who attended the hearing said they were dismayed the judges seemed unlikely to reverse the plea.

"It didn't sound good," said Ginni Wolf, who has three sons. "I'm not giving up hope. It's the right thing to do. The wrong was done six years ago. If it stands, it comes down to Rodriguez will not serve a single day for the murder of my husband."

Col. David B. Mitchell, Maryland State Police superintendent, said: "We continue to come together eight years later. We see a family in grief. The pain is still fresh; it runs deep. The state cut a deal that never should have been cut."

Under terms of the plea agreement, Rodriguez agreed to plead guilty to first-degree murder and testify against his co-defendant, Eric Tirado, in return for having his life sentence reduced to 15 years once Tirado's appeals were exhausted.

Tirado was convicted and sentenced to life, and his appeals are finished.

Rodriguez' testimony was never needed, according to state prosecutors.

Because Rodriguez's murder sentence runs concurrently with a 15-year federal sentence on unrelated drug charges, those challenging the plea bargain say, Rodriguez will spend no time in prison for the slaying of the 18-year state trooper.

Rodriguez would be released from federal prison in 2006.

Former Howard County prosecutor Tim Wolf, who was involved in the plea arrangement, said yesterday he stands behind the deal he and his boss, former Howard County State's Attorney William Hymes, made.

"The judgment was made [in 1991] to proceed as we did," said Wolf, who is in private practice in Ellicott City. "A deal is a deal. It's appropriate if the Court of Special Appeals declines to reopen the matter."

An attorney for the widow and an assistant attorney general argued yesterday that Howard County Circuit Judge Raymond J. Kane Jr.'s January decision to uphold the controversial plea bargain was based on "fraudulent information."

Byron L. Warnken, who represents Ginni Wolf and various police and victim's rights groups in the case, asserted in court that Rodriguez changed his story as to his involvement in the murder -- at first saying he wasn't involved and then admitting it was his gun that Tirado used to shoot Wolf twice in the head March 29, 1990, after he stopped them for speeding on Interstate 95 in Jessup.

Because Rodriguez had not told the truth, Warnken claimed, the plea agreement should have been declared null. To protect Rodriguez from fellow inmates, the details of his plea agreement were kept sealed until last summer.

Prosecutors have said Kane had been misled about the original plea negotiations and Rodriguez's previous criminal record of three felony convictions in New York, one for assaulting a police officer, when he approved the agreement six years ago.

In January, Kane ruled that even if he had been misled, his hands were tied.

Yesterday, Annabelle L. Lisic, an assistant attorney general, said: "I'm asking the court to send this back to the Circuit Court so they can decide if there was fraud or misrepresentation. [That] would allow [Judge Kane] to rescind the plea agreement."

George E. Burns Jr., Rodriguez' public defender, disagreed, saying the appeal should be dismissed. "[Judge Kane] has the right to get more information. He didn't ask for any more and the prosecutors didn't give him any more," Burns said, referring to Rodriguez's criminal record.

Sitting on the panel with Murphy and Hollander was Judge James Kenney III. Kenney made few comments.

"The state now comes before us, attacking the state. I don't get how this ever happened," Hollander said. "If there had been careful prosecution, how did anyone not know what [Rodriguez's] record was?

"[The state] made an agreement that now they don't want to live with," she said.

Pub Date: 11/03/98

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