The Baltimore County man convicted this week of first-degree murder in the shooting of a Towson gas station owner can be subjected to the death penalty, a Harford County Circuit Court jury decided Thursday.
In the first courtroom application of Maryland's revised capital punishment law, the five-man, seven-woman jury agreed with the prosecution's argument that a video confession by Walter P. Bishop Jr., 29, was given voluntarily, as the new law requires. The defense argued that Bishop could not have confessed voluntarily to Baltimore County police because he did not know that the statements could make him eligible for the death penalty, and would probably not have talked if he had.
The jury deliberated on the question of the recorded confession for about three hours Thursday afternoon. Bishop listened to their decision without showing any emotion, much as he had on Wednesday when he was convicted of first-degree murder, conspiracy and a handgun offense for shooting William "Ray" Porter at a Hess station on East Joppa Road last year.
The sentencing portion of the trial will continue Friday. Jurors will now decide whether Bishop will be sentenced to death, life in prison without the possibility of parole, or life with the possibility of parole. Lawyers said they expect a sentence to be pronounced next week.
After he was arrested and taken to Baltimore County police headquarters on March 6, 2010, Bishop gave two homicide detectives a detailed account of how he shot Porter in the office of the gas station on the morning of March 1. He told police that Porter's wife, Karla Porter, had promised him $9,000 to kill her husband and had already paid him $300 to $400.
A recording of his confession was made by a camera concealed in a motion detector mounted high on a wall of the interrogation room. That recording — which was shown during the trial that began last week — is the evidence the state needed to pursue the death penalty under the more restrictive capital punishment law that went into effect in 2009. The law also allows the state to pursue the death penalty if there is DNA or other biological evidence, or a video recording that "conclusively" links the defendant to the killing.
In this case, there is only the recording of the confession, so the death penalty hinged on that — as long as it could be shown that the recorded confession meets the "voluntary" standard established in the law.
Defense lawyer Harun Shabazz of the Maryland Office of the Public Defender argued that it did not meet that standard, and could not, because Bishop was not told that by confessing he was subjecting himself to the death penalty. In effect, Shabazz argued, Bishop had not committed a capital offense until he gave the confession.
Shabazz, who played a portion of the video and read transcript excerpts of the confession, told the jury that the two detectives who questioned Bishop deliberately downplayed the significance of his statements.
"The police are playing a game here," Shabazz said. "The game is to not let Mr. Bishop know how important this is."
Shabazz said that he doubted Bishop would have confessed if he had known that his statements would subject him to the death penalty.
"Walter is so much in the blind. … How can you volunteer if you don't know the consequences of what you're volunteering to?"
Assistant State's Attorney John P. Cox argued before the jury that the police followed the law and did not force Bishop to confess. He rejected the defense assertion that police should have told Bishop the legal consequences of a confession.
"It's not their job to stop people from talking to them," Cox said. Nowhere in the law, he added, "does it say there's an obligation to tell the suspect the consequences. …He was not forced in any way to confess to this crime, but he did."
The trial was moved out of Baltimore County at the request of the defense.
Bishop is one of six people who have been implicated in the killing. Four others, including Karla Porter's sister, brother and nephew, have either pleaded guilty or been convicted of first-degree murder. The state did not seek the death penalty in those cases, and no sentences have been pronounced.
Prosecutors said they will seek the death penalty for Karla Porter, whose trial is scheduled to begin in the spring.