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Karla Porter found guilty of first-degree murder in husband's death

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A Baltimore County jury on Tuesday rejected a White Marsh woman's claim that the only way to end years of spousal abuse was to hire a hit man to kill her husband.

The jury, composed of nine women and three men, convicted Karla Porter of first-degree murder in a case that tested the scope of self-defense arguments.

The 51-year-old defendant stood stoically in a dark pant suit with her long red hair tightly braided as the jury foreman read the verdict, which could send her to prison for the rest of her life without the possibility of parole.

Porter acknowledged on the stand that she arranged for the shooting death of 49-year-old William "Ray" Porter on March 1, 2010 at a Towson Hess station on Joppa Road owned by the victim.

Porter said she had endured years of abuse, which led her to plot her husband's death. Her lawyer had hoped for a conviction on a lesser charge of manslaughter, but prosecutors said that the crime was premeditated and that Porter had searched for a killer for some time, even offering two other men money in exchange for the killing.

"We feel like justice has been served," said Ray Porter's brother, Rick Porter, outside the courthouse after the verdict. "Ray was a good man," and Karla Porter's allegations of abuse were false, he said.

The trial has been hard on family members who packed the courtroom each day, he said. They lost not only Ray Porter but also Karla, who had been considered part of the family, he said.

Karla Porter also has deprived her three children of their father — and now she will no longer be present in their lives, Rick Porter said. He said the trial has strained relations with Ray and Karla's daughter, who testified in court that she witnessed her father abuse her mother.

Porter's attorney, William B. Purpura, said his client's case was the first in Maryland for a "defense of spousal abuse" in a murder-for-hire case. He said it was her only option for defense, since she had confessed to homicide detectives shortly after her husband's death.

"This trial was a first," he said.

Purpura said the jury should have been better instructed on how to evaluate evidence in spousal-abuse cases. "This will make an interesting appellate issue," he said.

Deputy State's Attorney John Cox said after the verdict that Porter's defense was "a disgrace" to true victims of domestic violence. He criticized her use of a self-defense argument in the case, calling it the "final act of desperation for Karla Porter."

"In my mind that was all lies," he said.

The verdict brings to an end a three-year saga and completes a victory for the Baltimore County state's attorney's office, with Porter the latest and last to be tried and convicted in connection with the plot that led to her husband's death.

Porter's nephew, Seamus Coyle, who found the hit man; Porter's sister, Susan M. Datta, who obtained the gun; and the hit man, Walter Bishop, have all been convicted and sent to prison. Bishop was offered $9,000 but paid only $400 to fulfill the contract. Prosecutors said he wanted the money to pay off child support.

Calvin Lee Mowers, who drove Bishop to the station, and Matthew Phillip Brown, who accompanied him, also were sentenced to life sentences with all but 20 years suspended.

Prosecutors said Karla Porter called Bishop 53 times, even meeting him briefly at a nearby McDonald's that morning to make sure he would go through with the shooting.

She joined her husband at the gas station, and while setting up racks of merchandise outside, saw the gunman. Bishop later followed her inside the gas station, pulled a gun from his sweatshirt and opened fire, killing Ray Porter.

Karla Porter called 911 and told police that a young black man did it. She would later relay the false description to homicide detectives until finally confessing, telling them that she just wanted the abuse to stop.

Prosecutors had sought the death penalty for Porter until it was repealed by the state legislature this year. Bishop was eligible, but a jury decided not to sentence him to execution.

After five days of testimony, jurors deliberated for about five hours before reaching their verdict, which also included guilty findings on other charges — use of a handgun in a violent crime, conspiracy to commit murder and solicitation to commit murder.

Shortly before the verdict, jurors had sent a note to Circuit Judge Robert E. Cahill Jr., asking him to clarify the law regarding imperfect self-defense, indicating that they were at least taking a close look at the defense theory or possibly a lesser charge of manslaughter.

An imperfect self-defense finding would have helped Porter's attorneys argue for a lesser charge. They needed to show that Porter believed she was in immediate danger, that she used no more force than was necessary, that escaping such harm was considered unsafe, and that she was not the aggressor.

But not long after jurors posed the question, they found her guilty of the most serious charge.

Karla Porter had taken the witness stand in her own defense and, for several hours, described abuse by her husband. She said he smeared her with dog excrement and pointed a gun to her head while threatening to kill her.

"If Ray was alive, I would be dead," she said last week.

She also described pulling off the side of the road in her neighborhood where she told a neighbor that her husband had threatened to kill her and she was afraid to go home.

The neighbor testified in court that Porter had told him Ray Porter threatened to kill her, which her attorney said corroborated the abuse. But prosecutors argued that he and other witnesses recalled significant details differently from Porter, raising doubts about the abuse or severity of abuse.

Porter said felt she had to take action because her husband wanted to move to Florida and she feared he would kill her there, where her family and friends would be unable to protect her.

But prosecutors argued she did not meet the threshold for a self-defense claim because she was not in imminent danger when she finally took action — at the time of the shooting Ray Porter was counting merchandise at the station and was unarmed and on crutches. They had yet to move out of state.

Prosecutors also said she methodically planned his killing for months — she had contacted two other men about paying them to kill her husband.

Ray Porter's mother said the verdict "still doesn't bring Ray back," but thanked the state's attorney's office and the police department.

Karla Porter showed no outward emotion when the verdict was read.

"She took it stoically," Purpura said. "There has been a lot going on in her life in the past three years. This is another event."

jkanderson@baltsun.com

twitter.com/janders5

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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