In Bishop case, Maryland death penalty law gets first trial

Towson murder-for-hire case may test revised statute

October 16, 2011|By Arthur Hirsch, The Baltimore Sun

The man accused of fatally shooting a Towson gas station owner in a murder-for-hire scheme is due in court this week — the first trial under Maryland's revamped death penalty law, legal experts say.

And the trial of Walter P. Bishop Jr., scheduled to begin Tuesday with jury selection in Harford County Circuit Court, could eventually test Maryland's definition of a capital case, as his lawyers argue that police improperly obtained a crucial piece of evidence.

Considered one of the most restrictive capital punishment laws in the 34 states that have the death penalty, the Maryland statute that went into effect two years ago put new limits on such prosecutions. The death penalty only be sought only in cases where there is DNA or other biological evidence, a video recording that "conclusively" links the defendant to the crime or a video of a "voluntary interrogation and confession."

Prosecutors have a video recording of Bishop talking for hours to homicide detectives in an interrogation room at Baltimore County police headquarters on March 6, 2010, the day he was arrested in the slaying of William R. Porter. Bishop sat there from the afternoon into the night and, according to an investigator's report, he confessed to killing Porter at the Hess station on East Joppa Road on the morning of March 1, 2010.

But defense lawyers say police never told Bishop his words were being recorded — or the consequences that those words carried. "He was never told that by giving a videotaped confession, he was making himself eligible for the death penalty, where otherwise he would not be eligible," said Stefanie McArdle, one of his public defenders.

Bishop, who is from Essex, at first told police he was not involved in the killing, but eventually he admitted that he was. According to the investigator's report, he asked for a piece of blank paper and drew a diagram of the gas station, showing how he got a signal from Porter's wife to walk into the station that Monday morning, how he stepped into the hallway to the office and pointed a handgun at the 49-year-old Porter. He told them he closed his eyes and fired several shots.

Bishop, 29, is one of six people implicated in the killing, including Porter's wife, Karla, her sister, brother and nephew.

He told detectives that Karla Porter had paid him $300 to $400 for the killing, had promised him $9,000 more, and had asked him more than once in the weeks before if he would kill her husband, court records show. He also told police where they could find the handgun he used.

Karla Porter is scheduled to be tried next year on a charge of first-degree murder, and will also face the death penalty if convicted, said John P. Cox, one of the two assistant state's attorneys handling the Bishop trial.

Two others implicated in the killing have been convicted and two have pleaded guilty, but the death penalty does not apply in their cases, Cox said. No sentences have been handed down in those four cases.

Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger believes the Bishop case is the first death penalty trial under Maryland's new law. Byron L. Warnken, a University of Baltimore law professor who teaches and publishes on criminal law and constitutional criminal procedure, said he knows of no other death penalty cases that have come to trial since the state law was changed.

Court documents show that Shellenberger chose last year to pursue the death penalty because of an "aggravating factor" — that Bishop carried out the killing under an agreement or promise of compensation. The basis for the death penalty is the same in the Karla Porter case, Cox said.

Under the new law, though, prosecutors could not pursue the capital case without the video recording of Bishop's incriminating statements, because there was no biological or DNA evidence and no other recording that would link him to the shooting.

Judge Mickey J. Norman ruled the recording of Bishop's statement to police can be used as evidence in the trial. A Baltimore County Circuit Court judge, Norman moved with the case when it was assigned to Harford County. The defense asked for the change of venue, but argued against a move to Harford or Carroll county, saying that neither would be far enough from Baltimore County to avoid the prejudicial impact of "excessive publicity" about the case.

Defense lawyers lost that argument, as well as their attempt to bar the recording from being used in the trial. Bishop's lawyers, McArdle and Harun Shabazz, both working for the Maryland Office of the Public Defender in Baltimore City, entered 10 motions to strike the prosecutor's move to seek the death penalty, according to court records.

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