Trial of alleged gunman in Towson murder case draws focus on death penalty

On the evening of March 6, 2010, Walter Paul Bishop sat in a Baltimore County police interrogation room, crying.

The 27-year-old father of five said he hadn't slept for days and wanted a coffee and a menthol cigarette, according to court records, and he was convinced he was facing 15 to 25 years in prison, regardless of what he told police.


He now faces the death penalty, standing trial next week in the March 2010 shooting death of a Towson gas station owner.

According to court documents, Bishop, of Essex, was arrested at about 1 p.m. that afternoon at gunpoint by police in Montgomery County, then turned over an hour later to Baltimore County police at a rest stop near the intersection of Interstate 95 and Route 32.


At 3:30 p.m., he arrived at Baltimore County police headquarters, where his attorneys say he was left handcuffed and alone in the interview room for more than three hours.

At 6:42 p.m., a county detective began interviewing Bishop about his role in what police believe to be a murder-for-hire scheme that left Walter "Ray" Porter, owner of a Hess gas station in Towson, dead from a gunshot to the face five days prior, on March 1, 2010.

Court records state that police believed Bishop had been hired as the hit man in a scheme devised by Porter's wife, Karla Porter, and they were looking for a confession to the killing.

What happened during the subsequent interview has since been the subject of a key legal dispute between defense and prosecuting attorneys in Bishop's capital murder case, for which jury selection is set to begin Oct. 18 in Harford County Circuit Court in Bel Air.

It's a dispute, outlined in court documents that also provided the above details about Bishop's arrest, that goes to the heart of Maryland's death penalty law and the key changes made to it two years ago.

Since 2009, a person found guilty of first-degree murder in Maryland can be sentenced to death only if one of three pieces of evidence exists: biological or DNA evidence that links the defendant to the murder; a video recording of the crime that does the same; or a "video taped, voluntary interrogation and confession of the defendant to the murder."

Prosecutors believe the videotape of Bishop's police interview — in which, according to documents in the court record, Bishop confessed to shooting Porter — meets the third evidentiary requirement and are seeking the death penalty for Bishop.

Bishop, now 29, has pleaded not guilty. His lawyers say police entrapped him, instigating and luring him into confessing, and that Bishop didn't know the trap he was falling into.

The defense at one point filed a motion to strike the state's intention to seek the death penalty based on that argument, but Circuit Court Judge Mickey Norman denied it.

The issue almost certainly will resurface during the trial, however, and the jury will specifically consider the validity of the confession and whether it meets the state's requirement for a death sentence.

During an interview, Stefanie McArdle, one of Bishop's lawyers and deputy division chief for the Office of the Public Defender's aggravated homicide division, would speak little about Bishop's case directly, but she criticized the law being used by the state to seek her client's death.

"It doesn't make sense. It's counterintuitive," she said of the law. "If I cooperate with you, I'm giving you what you need to try to have me executed."


The fact that, in Maryland, cooperation with police can be the linchpin in the prosecution's case for executing a defendant is "a real perverse twist of the law," McArdle said.

Co-defendants and publicity

Opponents of the death penalty have made similar claims since the law took effect in 2009.

A total of six people were arrested and charged with first-degree murder for Porter's shooting, the details of which have been covered extensively in Baltimore County courts and in local media.

Police say Karla Porter promised to pay Bishop $9,000 to kill her husband as part of a murder-for-hire scheme that also involved three members of her family and another man.

Karla Porter's sister, Susan Datta, and her nephew, Seamus Coyle, who police say introduced Bishop to his aunt, were both found guilty of first-degree murder in 2010 for their involvement in the scheme. Her brother, Calvin Mowers, and another man, Matthew Brown, both pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in the case in 2010.

Karla Porter's capital murder trial likely will be held next year.

All are expected to appear as witnesses for the prosecution in Bishop's trial. Mowers' and Brown's appearances as witnesses were stipulations of their plea agreements, McArdle said.

Jurors selected for Bishop's trial will be told to use only information presented during the trial in deciding their verdict, but the prominence of the case is a concern, McArdle said.

In fact, Bishop's case is being tried in Harford County because the defense successfully argued that a Baltimore County jury would be swayed by "extensive, prejudicial publicity" in the case, according to court documents. The defense also argued, unsuccessfully, that jurors in Harford and Carroll counties would be similarly swayed.

"We are concerned with the publicity that is already out there," McArdle said.

Legal status and public opinion

No one has been put to death in Maryland for more than five years, the result of a "de facto moratorium" on executions after concerns from lawmakers about protocols for lethal injections, McArdle said.

One chemical used in those injections, sodium thiopental, is no longer available in the United States, an issue currently being reviewed by the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said Takirra Winfield, a spokeswoman for Gov. Martin O'Malley, in an email.

O'Malley is an opponent of the death penalty but is "committed to carrying out the law," Winfield said in the email.

Among other considerations, DPSCS officials are reviewing practices in other states that have the death penalty, Winfield said. Until the issue is settled, the unofficial moratorium will continue.

Nevertheless, prosecutors in Maryland have continued to seek the death penalty in cases where it is legally applicable, just as they are for Karla Porter and Bishop, said Baltimore County Assistant State's Attorney John Cox, the prosecutor in Bishop's case.

"The death penalty is still a valid, on-the-books punishment that is available in the state of Maryland, so when appropriate, this office will seek it," Cox said, noting such sentencing decisions are made in Baltimore County by State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger.

A survey of Marylanders from the beginning of this year by Annapolis-based Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies found that 56 percent say they support the death penalty and 26 percent say they oppose it.

The same survey found that 60 percent of respondents considered a life sentence without the possibility of parole a suitable alternative.


Public opinion will be relevant for McArdle and Cox as they begin selecting jurors in Bishop's case.

"Our aim, as it should be for everybody, is to have people who can be fair and partial to both sides, and not be affected by information they have from outside the courtroom," Cox said.

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