By Jason Tomassini
BEL AIR, Md (Reuters) - A jury on Thursday decided that a Maryland man convicted of a murder-for-hire was eligible to be sentenced to death, making the case the first test of the state's new death penalty statute.
The statute is considered among the most restrictive in the nation.
Walter Bishop Jr., 29, was convicted Wednesday of fatally shooting William Porter last year at a gas station Porter owned, a crime Bishop is accused of committing at the behest of Porter's wife, Karla.
Bishop shot Porter in the head and then stood over his body and shot him again, prosecutors said.
On Thursday, the same jury that convicted Bishop began the penalty phase of the trial, expected to end next week when the panel decides his sentence.
Bishop could become Maryland's sixth death row inmate and first since the state revised its statute two years ago, according to the Baltimore County State's Attorney's Office.
To be eligible for the death penalty, there must be DNA or video evidence linking the defendant to a murder or video of a voluntary interrogation and confession.
The jury ruled Bishop fulfilled the last requirement, despite pleas from his attorneys that a video confession he gave police March 6, 2010, was not voluntary.
Police did not tell Bishop he was being videotaped, read his Miranda rights without mentioning the new death penalty statute, and pushed for a confession despite "a mountain of evidence" and two co-defendants identifying Bishop as the shooter, Harun Shabazz, Bishop's public defender, told jurors.
Prosecutors argued police acted properly and the law does not obligate them to tell suspects anything about a suspect's potential sentencing.
FOLLOWING THE LAW?
"Police have the responsibility to follow the law," said John Cox, an Assistant State's Attorney of Baltimore County. "It's not their job to stop people from talking to them."
Baltimore County Circuit Court Judge Mickey Norman rejected several attempts to strike the death penalty in the case.
Beginning Friday, both sides will argue whether Bishop should be sentenced to death. If he is not, he will face life in prison, or life in prison with possibility of parole.
The key piece of evidence for jurors was the video of Bishop's interrogation and confession, played several times in court.
In the video, police tell Bishop, who has five children, that he would be a better example to his young family if he divulged what he did.
"Even if I tell the whole truth, everything," Bishop responded, crying, "I'm still going to jail."
Shabazz argued police were persistent because they were hoping for a death penalty case.
"The police were playing a game with him," Shabazz said. "The game was to not let Mr. Bishop know how important the situation was."
The death penalty is legal in 34 states, although rules for imposing it differ. Five people have been executed in Maryland since the death penalty was reinstated in the United States in 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, based in Washington, D.C.
Maryland's new statue, instituted in 2009 after a failed attempt to abolish the death penalty by Governor Martin O'Malley, is arguably the most restrictive in the country, said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.
Illinois had one of the more restrictive laws before it was abolished earlier this year, and in 2005, Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney failed in attempts to pass a law requiring guilt beyond any doubt in death penalty cases, Dieter said.
Even if sentenced to death, Bishop could avoid execution, Dieter said, due to the law's susceptibility for a lengthy appeal process.
"I think someone will get the death sentence but I think it's very unlikely anyone will get executed under this statute," he said.
(Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Jerry Norton)