Officials stand by plea deal in killing They call criticism unwarranted in case of slain state trooper

November 23, 1998|By Dana Hedgpeth | Dana Hedgpeth,SUN STAFF

Ginni Wolf, the widow, and Tim Wolf, the prosecutor, once stood united in the quest to jail the killers of her husband, Maryland State Police Cpl. Theodore D. Wolf.

Eight years later, they are at odds as they await action by Maryland's second-highest court on this question:

Should one of the killers have gotten the deal that will free him in a few years?

Tim Wolf, former senior assistant Howard County state's attorney, and William R. Hymes, who was state's attorney in 1990, say they feel maligned.

Their judgment and competence have been unfairly criticized, they say, contending that critics are focused only on the horrendous nature of the crime and don't know details of the case. The deal they forged with convicted killer Francisco Rodriguez has been called bad, unnecessary and unjust.

"It was a deal that was made and it's done," said Wolf -- who is not related to the widow -- in his first interview on the deal since it was challenged in court.

"It was somewhat difficult to swallow, but when you're dealing with the real situation at the time, you make a judgment call," he said. "For [people] to come back and try to undo it is not right."

The plea agreement was sealed at the request of prosecutors to keep Rodriguez safe from possible assault by prison inmates. Since it became public last summer, Ginni Wolf and allies, who include victims' rights groups and state troopers, have fought to have it nullified.

A Howard County circuit judge rejected a request by the state attorney general to throw out the deal, a decision appealed to Maryland's Court of Special Appeals.

Rodriguez agreed to plead guilty to second-degree murder and to testify against the shooter, Eric Tirado, in return for having his life sentence reduced to 15 years once Tirado was convicted and his appeals were exhausted.

But it turned out that prosecutors had sufficient evidence to convict without Rodriguez's testimony, and he never took the stand. Tirado was given a life sentence without parole.

Once Tirado's appeals were exhausted, Rodriguez demanded that the plea agreement be enforced, making his sentence 15 years -- concurrent with a 15-year term he is serving on federal drug charges. He would be released from federal prison in 2006.

"We had a tough investigation," said Hymes, retired in Florida. "We got backed into a corner. The only thing we could do with it was make a deal with Rodriguez" -- the only eyewitness.

"I would have liked to put [Rodriguez] away for life. But we just didn't have the facts to make a case against him. It made sense to everyone in the office at the time."

Not quite everyone.

"I didn't participate in the final stages of it because I so disagreed with taking the plea for Rodriguez," said prosecutor Dwight Thompson. "The crime was an assassination. They both [Tirado and Rodriguez] should have paid a hefty punishment for it."

Which is what Ginni Wolf says.

"Somebody is going to be able to find some little loophole to fix it. Defense attorneys get hired to find loopholes for criminals they know are guilty," she said. "Why can't the reverse work in this? That may be naive, but I know what's right is right and what's wrong is wrong. This [deal] was wrong."

Corporal Wolf was found fatally shot in his patrol car less than a quarter-mile from the Waterloo state police barracks March 29, 1990. The scene gave prosecutors little concrete evidence.

A passer-by noticed Wolf's car parked on the side of Interstate 95 in Jessup. Tirado's fingerprints were on the driver's side of the patrol car, and investigators found a burned ticket book in which Wolf had started to write the two defendants a speeding ticket.

At the time, prosecutors thought the best way to prove Tirado was the shooter and obtain the maximum penalty was to use Rodriguez -- the only eyewitness.

Prosecutors had a witness, a New York friend of the two defendants who said Tirado had bragged to him at a party about killing the trooper, but Hymes' team worried about his credibility, and moved forward with the Rodriguez deal.

Tim Wolf acknowledges that planning to use Rodriguez's testimony in Tirado's trial was a "double-edged sword."

"On the one hand, Rodriguez could have been a finger-pointing-type witness where the jurors say he was also involved in the crime," he said. "But we held on to him in case we didn't have enough strong evidence to present to the jury."

Though Rodriguez never testified, Ginni Wolf and the attorney general's office face a difficult time overturning his deal.

Last year, Carroll County State's Attorney Jerry F. Barnes -- who acted as a special prosecutor at Howard County's request -- argued that a Howard Circuit Court judge had been misled about the plea negotiations and Rodriguez's criminal record when the judge approved the deal.

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