A White Marsh woman convicted of hiring a hit man for $400 to kill her husband seven years ago will receive a new trial, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled this week in a 4-3 decision split along gender lines.
Karla Porter, now 55, was sentenced to life without parole in the death of her husband, William "Ray" Porter, who was shot at his Towson gas station on March 1, 2010. Porter's attorneys argued at trial that she suffered more than two decades of physical and emotional abuse from her husband, which led to her to believe he would kill her if she did not kill him first.
"If Ray was alive, I would be dead," she testified during her 2013 trial in Baltimore County Circuit Court.
The jury, composed of nine women and three men, convicted Porter of first-degree murder.
At issue in the appeal was whether the Circuit Court judge properly instructed jurors on what constitutes "imperfect self-defense," which could have resulted in the conviction on the lesser charge of manslaughter, which carries up to a 10-year sentence.
To prove imperfect self-defense, Porter's attorneys needed to show that Porter believed she was in immediate danger. But the jurors were instructed that they needed to find she "used no more force than was reasonably necessary to defend herself," according to the Court of Appeals opinion.
The opinion, supported by all four female justices, also found that battered spouse syndrome could be used as an argument for imperfect self-defense and that Porter wouldn't have to have felt threatened just before the killing.
All three men on the court dissented.
"[W]e decline to hold that a woman suffering from battered spouse syndrome must experience abuse within minutes or hours of her defensive action to be entitled to an instruction on imperfect self-defense. Doing so would ignore the reality of intimate partner violence," the opinion said.
During the trial, Porter's attorneys called several witnesses to try to corroborate the alleged abuse, which they said included threatening her with a gun and, at another time, smearing dog feces on her.
Porter testified that she arranged for the killing of her 49-year-old husband because she believed that was her only choice. She said her husband wanted to move to Florida and she feared he would kill her there, where her family and friends would not be able to protect her.
A man convicted in the fatal shooting at a Hess gas station in exchange for $9,000 argued unsuccessfully that he should get a new trial because the judge in his case had once been the target in a similar scheme.
On the day of the murder, prosecutors said, Porter intentionally triggered the security alarm at the Joppa Road gas station. She later joined her husband at work, where a hired gunman, Walter Bishop, arrived, pulled a gun from his sweatshirt and opened fire, prosecutors said.
Neither of her attorneys returned calls for comment Tuesday afternoon.
Baltimore County Deputy State's Attorney John Cox, who prosecuted the case, said both sides "agreed there was an error in the instructions; the real issue is if it should have made a difference."
Cox said the ruling will have broader impact.
The ruling has "expanded the definition of what is an immediate danger to one's life and expanded such that you are permitted a self-defense, even if you hire someone to kill the other person," he said. "This has a created more opportunities for a defendant."
Cox said he spoke to Ray Porter's family, who sat through days of testimony about the ruling.
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"They're obviously disappointed but still resolved that we will continue to pursue the case," Cox said.
Karla Porter eventually will be transferred back to Baltimore County from Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup, and a new trial date will be set, he said.
Porter's nephew, Seamus Coyle, who connected Porter with Bishop; Porter's sister, Susan M. Datta, who obtained the gun; Calvin Lee Mowers, who drove Bishop to the station; and Matthew Phillip Brown, who accompanied him, were convicted of related crimes and also sentenced to prison.
Prosecutors had sought the death penalty for Porter until it was repealed by the state legislature in 2013.