12 1/2 years in prison too short, wife of slain Md. trooper says

One of men convicted in murder is about to be freed from federal system

December 27, 2003|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

One of two men convicted in the murder in March 1990 of a Maryland State Police trooper might soon be eligible for parole, to the surprise of some - including the officer's widow.

After serving 12 1/2 years of a 14-year federal prison sentence for an unrelated drug conviction, Francisco Rodriguez is scheduled to return from the federal Leavenworth Prison in Kansas to the custody of Maryland corrections officials next month.

Because his 15-year sentence in the highly publicized killing of Cpl. Theodore D. Wolf, 40, ran concurrently with his federal time, Rodriguez will enter the state system having served nearly 84 percent of his time - more than is required for parole eligibility.

Still, any parole request is likely to be met with vehement opposition - by Wolf's widow, Ginni, and his state police colleagues.

"I'm not going to sit there and do nothing," Ginni Wolf said.

State corrections officials said this week that they don't know the status of Rodriguez's sentence - including any future mandatory prison release date should parole efforts fail.

"We won't be able to determine any of that until he's back in our custody," said state prisons spokeswoman Priscilla Doggett.

News of Rodriguez's impending return caught Ginni Wolf off-guard. She thought, she said, that Rodriguez, 33, of the Bronx, N.Y., would be in the federal prison system for at least two more years.

She thought he might never serve a day in Maryland - that his state sentence might expire while he was in federal custody. In the federal system, unlike the state's, the reduction in sentence an inmate can earn for good behavior is much more limited - 54 days a year, maximum, according to a federal Bureau of Prisons spokesman. And Ginni Wolf erroneously believed that Rodriguez's federal term was 15 years, not 14.

But she knew Rodriguez would be released in her lifetime.

Even though her husband was working as a trooper making a traffic stop on Interstate 95 in Howard County when he was cut down by two bullets to his head, Rodriguez is not serving a life sentence for his guilty plea to murder. Rodriguez, prosecutors said in court, is the man who handed the murder weapon to the shooter, Eric Tirado.

Under a plea deal negotiated between the state and Rodriguez's attorney more than a decade ago and sealed from public view, Rodriguez's agreement to cooperate and testify if Tirado's murder conviction was overturned on appeal would be rewarded with a significant cut in the life term imposed at his original sentencing, once Tirado's appeals were exhausted.

His testimony was never needed, and Tirado, 39, is serving a sentence of life without the possibility of parole in the Maryland House of Correction-Annex in Jessup.

Unsuccessful fight

A new set of prosecutors and Ginni Wolf fought hard to nullify the plea deal when it was unsealed in 1997, arguing that the court had been misled. But they were unsuccessful, and Rodriguez's term was trimmed to life with all but 15 years suspended.

Those 15 years were to be concurrent - served at the same time - with his 14-year federal term for the drug conviction.

Tim Wolf, who is not related to the trooper, negotiated the plea deal for the Howard County state's attorney's office and was criticized for making it.

"Essentially, I did what I was told to do," said Tim Wolf, who has since left the prosecutor's office. "It's all part of what we decided to do."

Former public defender Thomas J. Saunders, who was not involved in the plea agreement, represented Rodriguez during his bid to have his sentence reduced. He said the court had no choice but to enforce the plea deal.

"These kinds of bargains are struck all the time," said Saunders, who is in private practice in Baltimore. "You've got to go by your word."

But for Ginni Wolf, the plea agreement was unconscionable. It meant, she said, that Rodriguez would likely not serve any time for her husband's murder. Although she wanted to make the deal public in 1992, she said she was told she'd be cited for contempt if she said a word.

"I thought, `This guy is going to go free, and I'm going to go to jail for contempt of court,'" she said yesterday - on what would have been their 33rd wedding anniversary - during an interview in her Glen Burnie home. It was a risk she couldn't take at the time, she said, with three young sons to raise.

Still, back then, even the shorter term felt like forever, she said: "It was like: 15 years, that's a long time. It really isn't."

For Ginni Wolf, her husband's death and the ensuing tangle with the Maryland court system - from her successful request to be allowed to sit through Tirado's trial over defense objections, to the Rodriguez agreement - have inspired changes in her that she could never have imagined.

Once so shy that her teachers complained she did not raise her hand enough, Wolf has been thrust front and center, both when issues involving her husband's case require her attention and in her former role as executive director of Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse.

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