Eric Joseph Tirado's life was spared last night when a Howard County jury sentenced the killer of Maryland State Police Cpl. Theodore D. Wolf to life in prison without parole for his first-degree murder conviction.
Tirado kept his head down and appeared to bite his lower lip when his fate was read aloud by a court clerk.
Before the jury made up its mind, a sobbing, barely audible Tirado pleaded yesterday with a Howard County jury to spare his life.
"I don't want to die. I don't want to put my family through the pain," Tirado said.
In work sheets compiled during deliberations on the fate of the New York defendant, one or more of the seven men and five women said thatTirado should receive "mercy and that . . . he showed remorse and he had a prior good life."
The 12 jurors were unanimous in finding compassion for the defendant's family and said they believed Tirado would be a positive influence on other inmates in prison.
Although the jury found that Tirado was the man who fired the shots that killed Corporal Wolf, apparently some jurors had lingering questions about it. Tirado's co-defendant, Francisco Rodriguez, 22, of the Bronx, New York, will be tried at a later date.
Virginia Wolf, widow of the 40-year-old state trooper, said after the decision that "it was hard for [the jurors], but at least he cannot be paroled."
Cpl. Nicholas Paros, a friend of Corporal Wolf, said: "The ultimate sentence should have been imposed and I speak for a lot of troopers" who believe the same thing.
Mark Van Bavel, Tirado's defense attorney, said he viewed the verdict as an "absolute victory."
Tirado, 27, a New York City police academy dropout from the Bronx, was convicted July 18 of first-degree murder by the same Howard County jury for shooting Corporal Wolf to death last year.
The jury of seven men and five women began deliberating at 12:48 p.m. yesterday whether Tirado should get the death penalty, life in prison with no chance of parole or a life sentence carrying at least 25 years in prison.
Tirado, reading from handwritten notes, expressed "shame and regret" for the murder and told the jury he was "not a bad person. I beg you not to sentence me to death."
Walking awkwardly to the defense table afterward, he muttered, "Oh, God, help me." He then sat with head bowed, referring to a pocket-sized New Testament from time to time. Tirado said he was sorry for hurting his family. The convicted murderer, who has been jailed 16 months while awaiting trial and sentencing, said he had not seen his 2-year-old son E. J. for more than a year until the boy was in the courtroom Friday when Tirado's family members and estranged wife testified. "He doesn't even know me," he said.
As Tirado spoke haltingly about hoping to become "a better person," Mrs. Wolf sat in the first row with her arm around one of her sons, 13-year-old Nick.
Her victim-impact statement was read to the jurors later by prosecutor Michael D. Rexroad.
"Eric Joseph Tirado has been convicted of the slaying of my husband," her statement said. "Consider also the sentence which Eric Joseph Tirado has imposed upon me and upon my children -- an irreversible, irrevocable lifetime sentence of grief, sorrow and heartache."
Mrs. Wolf's statement said she wonders "if there will ever come a time when a song on the radio or a TV commercial or a phrase in someone's conversation will not trigger a bittersweet memory, reducing me to tears or sending me to the depths of depression.
"I wonder if I will ever be able to look forward to happy events in the future without having them overshadowed by sadness from the past. How will I survive my sons' graduations and weddings and grandchildren without Ted there to share my happiness and pride, when I still cannot face celebrating even a single holiday at home?"
The prosecution pressed for the death penalty. Mr. Rexroad told the jurors "this is not just a murder -- it is an assassination." He showed the jury a close-up color photo taken of Corporal Wolf shortly after he was shot in the mouth by a .357-caliber Magnum handgun.
"Tears will not absolve Eric Joseph Tirado of this crime," Mr. Rexroad said. "He will not go one on one with the family and friends of the police officer and the hundreds of thousands who have shed tears in this case."
The prosecutor said that several weeks after Corporal Wolf was murdered during a 3:30 a.m. traffic stop March 29, 1990, on Interstate 95 near Jessup, Tirado "bragged" of the killing to a key state witness, Edgar Duvarie, a former co-worker and friend of the defendant.
Earlier Timothy Wolf, a co-counsel for the prosecution (no relation to the slain corporal), told the jury that the evidence was "compelling and necessary. Don't let Eric Tirado's actions go unanswered. The law supports you in your decision."
The defense argued that the jury should show mercy and return with a sentence of life without parole for Tirado.
"Please end it there and don't give the death penalty," pleaded the defense attorney, Mark Van Bavel. "You can't go back and bring Ted Wolf back. He [Tirado] is sorry and remorseful.
"What good is it is going to do to kill him? . . . You can mete out a punishment without killing him. Leave a piece of him behind the cement and iron bars for those who love him -- his family, son and others," the defense lawyer urged.
A term of life imprisonment without parole is "most awesome," Mr. Van Bavel said. "It means he can never hug a loved one again, never choose his next meal, never get to sit under a Christmas tree or carve a pumpkin for a child. . . . He will never be in contact with trees and grass or in control of his own life again."
"Whatever happened in the past, the Eric Tirado now sitting before you is humble," the defense attorney told the jury. He added that Tirado in begging for mercy was asking "you for a piece of his life -- whatever small part. He used to be theirs," he added, pointing to Tirado's parents and family in the front row behind the defense table. "But today he is yours."
Referring to the tear-filled testimony of Tirado's family members Friday, Mr. Van Bavel noted that his family "has been down here steadily. They know he got in trouble, but they love him. They are asking you to let him live so they can still hear his voice, read a letter from him or visit him" in prison.
Mr. Rexroad, who gave the state's closing argument, challenged the notion that Tirado should be granted mercy. Showing the jurors a picture of the trooper's fatal gunshot wounds, the prosecutor argued: "How dare they employ your sympathy when Eric Joseph Tirado did this? When he fired a second shot in the side of Ted Wolf's head, did he dare consider mercy? Did he call the ambulance after he shot the trooper? No, he fled like a coward from the scene."
Watching the closing arguments were more than a dozen state troopers, many in uniform. On the front bench, members of both the Wolf and Tirado families daubed their eyes at times.