Guilty verdict in murder-for-hire scheme; defendant could face death

A Baltimore County man was found guilty Wednesday of shooting a Towson gas station owner to death in the first case to test Maryland's revised capital punishment law.

Walter P. Bishop Jr., 29, was convicted by a jury of first-degree murder in the killing-for-hire of William "Ray" Porter and faces the penalty portion of the trial Thursday n Harford County Circuit Court. Prosecutors intend to seek the death penalty.

Wearing a dark suit and a lavender shirt open at the collar, Bishop showed no reaction when the foreman of the five-man, seven-woman jury announced the guilty verdicts. Bishop, who appeared unshaven and had dark circles under his eyes, sat at the defense table, his head slightly bowed.

The jury deliberated for about five hours Wednesday, breaking once to ask to see the state's key piece of evidence: a video recording of a confession Bishop gave to Baltimore County police the day he was arrested, March 6, 2010.

That recording, made by a concealed camera in an interrogation room at Baltimore County police headquarters, enabled the state to seek the death penalty under the new, more restrictive capital punishment law that went into effect in 2009. The law says prosecutors can seek the death penalty only if they have DNA or other biological evidence, a video recording that links the defendant to the crime or a video recording of a voluntary confession.

In the sentencing phase of the trial, which is expected to be more complicated and longer than the guilt-or-innocence phase, jurors will first have to decide whether the state has the evidence required under the new law to seek the death penalty.

Jurors will also be asked to consider whether Bishop killed Porter for money — the reason prosecutors cited for seeking the death penalty. They will also weigh potential mitigating factors, such as whether Bishop acted under pressure and whether Bishop has previously been convicted of a violent crime or is likely to commit such an offense again.

In her closing argument Wednesday, Assistant State's Attorney Jennifer B. Schiffer showed excerpts of the recording of Bishop telling the police that Karla Porter, the victim's wife, offered him money to kill her husband in late February, and describing how he shot Porter several times with a handgun in the gas station office. The jury had already seen the video during the trial, which began last week.

Schiffer argued that Bishop's own account proves that he meant to kill Porter and that he had time to think about doing it.

"How do we know who did it?" Schiffer said. "He told us."

She argued that Bishop "killed Ray Porter for the promise, not the receipt, but the promise, of $9,000."

Bishop's lawyer, Stefanie McArdle of the Maryland Office of the Public Defender, urged the jurors to pay attention to other aspects of Bishop's account — that he said he was physically sick before the shooting, that he closed his eyes before firing the shots, that he believed Karla Porter was being abused by her husband.

"We ask you to consider Walter Bishop's fear that Karla Porter was in imminent harm. .… He believed, as he said, 'I thought I was doing a good thing. I thought he was a bad man.'"

Prosecutors and the defense lawyers said they would not comment until after the jury has decided Bishop's sentence.

The trial was moved out of Baltimore County at the request of the defense.

Karla Porter's trial on charges of first-degree murder is scheduled for next spring, and prosecutors have filed notice they'll seek the death penalty in her case as well. Four others have been implicated in the case: Two have pleaded guilty, and two have been convicted of first-degree murder.

None of the four — including Karla Porter's sister, brother and nephew — have been sentenced. Prosecutors have not sought the death penalty in those cases.

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