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Howard County may hand off murder case

The trial of Richard Rodola, accused of dousing his girlfriend with gasoline and burning her to death, was scheduled to begin Monday in Howard County Circuit Court.

But it was postponed after prison guards confiscated a letter Rodola wrote to his lawyer and shared it with prosecutors — an incident now raising questions about whether the Howard County State’s Attorney’s office should hand off the high-profile case entirely.

Judge Diane O. Leasure removed the original prosecutors from Rodola’s case in late October and pushed the trial date to Feb. 13 to allow new prosecutors to familiarize themselves with it. But Rodola’s lawyer, George Psoras Jr. of Miller, Murtha & Psoras LLC, says he will soon file a motion to have the entire Howard County office removed.

“This obviously was the scuttle of the office — it was small talk,” Psoras said of the seized memo. “I think this whole case is tainted now.”

Howard County Deputy State’s Attorney Mary V. Murphy said her office would respond to any motion once Psoras files it. But she suggested it may hand off the case voluntarily.

“We’re researching the propriety of keeping the case in the office,” she said. “The alternatives are to bring in special prosecutors.”

Murphy said the use of special prosecutors is common. But the circumstances of Rodola’s case are anything but.

According to Howard County police, Rodola, 49, was living with Pamela Myers in a tent city in a wooded area of Laurel when the two got into an argument. Rodola allegedly set Myers ablaze and she survived for nearly a month with burns over 70 percent of her body before succumbing to her wounds.

Rodola is charged with first-degree murder.

Psoras said he took over Rodola’s defense after his original lawyer took medical leave. He said he asked Rodola to prepare a memo for him about the case, explaining his version of what happened and what he wanted from Psoras.

The memo, a five-page written note, was confiscated by guards during a random search at the Howard County Detention Center, then turned over to the prosecutors on the case.

“To their credit they were very honest,” Psoras said of the prosecutors. “They said ‘Yeah, we have it and of course we’re going to use it.’”

But Psoras balked, claiming the memo was privileged attorney work product and therefore protected from disclosure. Judge Leasure agreed, ordering the evidence sealed and removed and new prosecutors appointed.

University of Baltimore law professor José F. Anderson said Leasure made the right decision under Maryland law, even if inmates don’t have nearly the same expectation of privacy as private citizens.

“They have very few privacy rights in prison,” Anderson said. “But if there are any, they probably extend to rights to counsel.”

Former Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Peter D. Ward, now a lawyer in Towson, said the only way for the Howard County State’s Attorney’s office to prosecute the case now is to set up a “Chinese Wall” — an information barrier between those who had access to Rodola’s letter and those who didn’t.

That, he said, might be difficult.

“If you take people in the same office, there’s always the lingering questions, like perhaps they sat around at lunch and talked about what they found,” he said.

Ward noted that the Howard County office is “fairly small,” and that to prevent an appeal down the line, the safer play would be to bring in outside prosecutors.

“You never want to give the defendant something to hang his hat on later,” Ward said.