Prosecutors in the murder-for-hire case involving the killing of a Towson gas station owner cleared the hurdle set by Maryland's revised and more restrictive capital punishment law, but ultimately could not convince a jury to sentence to death the man convicted of first-degree murder for the shooting.
A Harford County Circuit Court jury decided Wednesday that Walter P. Bishop Jr. — who last week was found guilty of shooting William "Ray" Porter in a Hess station on March 1, 2010 — should serve life in prison with the possibility of parole. The five-man, seven-woman panel found that factors including his lack of prior violent crime convictions outweighed the state's claim that he should be sentenced to death because he had killed for pay.
Bishop, 29, a father of five who grew up in eastern Baltimore County, could be eligible for parole in about 50 years under sentences decided by the jury and imposed by Judge Mickey J. Norman, who also decided the punishment for two related counts: conspiracy to commit murder and use of a handgun in a crime of violence.
As the jury foreman announced the sentence, Bishop — who was convicted of accepting an offer of $9,000 from Porter's wife, Karla Porter, to kill her husband — stood at the defense table next to his two lawyers wearing a black suit and reddish shirt open at the collar. He showed no emotion as the jury announced that it had decided on the outcome most favorable to the defense among their three choices: death, life in prison without parole or life with parole.
Norman, a Baltimore County circuit judge, said after he had excused the jury that he has the "greatest respect" for the time and attention jurors devoted to the case, but called some of their findings "preposterous." Specifically, he disagreed with the mitigating factors they found that outweighed the aggravating factor that Bishop committed the murder on the promise he'd be paid to do it. That factor was the reason the state gave for seeking the death penalty.
The jury found unanimously that Bishop acted under "significant duress, domination or provocation" of another person. Some jurors, but not all, also found the defense proved that Bishop was not the "sole" cause of Porter's death.
Byron L. Warnken, a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law who teaches and publishes on criminal law, said parole for those serving life sentences in Maryland is "almost nonexistent." He said prosecutors had cut themselves a difficult task in trying to win a death sentence.
"Unless it's the most horrendous crime with no mitigating factors at all, it's very difficult to convince 12 people to execute," said Warnken.
The trial was the first to test a 2009 law that limits the death penalty to cases in which the state has one of three specific types of evidence. In the Bishop case, prosecutors had a video recording of a voluntary confession Bishop gave to police when he was arrested on March 6. The law also includes DNA or other biological evidence or a video recording linking the defendant to the crime.
One of Bishop's lawyers, Stefanie M. McArdle, of the Maryland office of the public defender, said, "We're certainly relieved. We're glad the jury saw this was unexpected, it was an aberration. He [Bishop] would never have conceived this on his own. The jury saw he was not a danger to society."
Her colleague, Harun Shabazz, said he felt the death penalty was not appropriate for crimes like this or for defendants like Bishop.
"The death penalty is reserved for the worst of the worst," said Shabazz. "Neither his crime nor his track record as a human being" present that profile, Shabazz said.
Assistant State's Attorney John P. Cox said, "We had a fair trial. I completely respect the decision of the jury."
William Porter's mother, Margaret Porter, of Harford County, who sat beside her husband, William, for the entire trial, said the family of the victim, a 49-year-old father of four from Baltimore County, thanked the jury and the prosecutors for their work. She said, "The jury weighed the evidence, it was their decision." She would not say if she had wanted to see any particular outcome.
McArdle said the defense would be filing appeals, mentioning specifically sentences imposed by Norman for the two included offenses. Depending on decisions of the Maryland Parole Commission, those sentences about doubled the time Bishop would have to serve before he could be eligible for parole – from 25 to about 50 years.
McArdle said those sentences effectively nullify the jury's intention to impose life with the possibility of parole.
"The judge has turned this into, in effect, life without parole," McArdle said.
Norman imposed the sentences about two hours after the jury's announcement, after the jury had been dismissed and with Bishop before him, now changed from a suit to the gray-striped uniform of the Harford County Detention Center, manacled at the hands and feet. The judge asked court officers to unchain Bishop's hands, then asked him if he had anything to say before sentences were imposed.
Bishop, who the day before stood and tearfully apologized to Porter's family and friends, was more composed in speaking to the judge.
"I just ask the court to just have mercy," said Bishop. He said he was not "this monster the state tried to paint me to be. I don't think I should die in prison."
Karla Porter is scheduled to be tried next spring in Carroll County. She and Bishop are among six people who have been implicated in the killing, including Karla Porter's brother, sister and nephew. Of the four others, two have pleaded guilty and two have been convicted of first-degree murder, but Bishop is the first to be sentenced in the crime.
Prosecutors have sought the death penalty only for Bishop and Porter.