Stress shadows man under death sentence

December 20, 1992|By Patrick A. McGuire | Patrick A. McGuire,Staff Writer

Sunday's editions of The Sun incorrectly included a photograph of Vernon Evans III in a graphic depicting prisoners on Maryland's death row. The graphic should have shown his father, Vernon Evans Jr., but the Baltimore County state's attorney's office inadvertently provided the photograph of the son.

The Sun regrets the error.

He has spent eight years on Maryland's death row. Twice hideath sentence has been overturned, but twice, new juries have voted again for death. He has years of appeals left and knows that another reversal could free him from the shadow of the gas chamber.

But John Booth, condemned to die for a crime that horrified the city in 1983, is not optimistic.

"No question about it," he said recently, "I fully expect them to execute me. But it won't bring back the victims."

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

That reference to his former Pimlico neighbors Irvin Bronstein, 78, and his wife, Rose, 75, whose bodies were discovered bound, gagged and stabbed a dozen times, was the closest he && came to discussing the crime that has put him on death row.

Booth agreed to talk about his life under sentence of death on the condition that no questions be asked about the murders that prompted Kurt L. Schmoke -- in his fifth month as state's attorney -- to seek the death penalty for the first time.

"To know John Booth is to know the death penalty is appropriate for him," says Timothy Doory, a longtime deputy in the state's attorney's office who was the co-prosecutor in the 1984 murder trial.

"We've tried him three times, and 36 jurors couldn't come up with any mitigating circumstances," he says, referring to circumstances that might somehow lessen the impact of the crime in jurors' eyes. "When you add it up, there is nothing mitigating to say about the man."

Booth, interviewed at the Maryland Penitentiary, which houses most of the 13 men under death sentence, shakes his head.

"I am not liked by judges and prosecutors," he says. "Part of the reason is that I will not just lay down and roll over and die."

He appeared at the interview unescorted by corrections officers, highlighting the difference between Maryland's condemned inmates and those in almost every other state with a capital punishment statute.

Typically in those states, the condemned are segregated from other inmates and confined to an official "death row" within sight of the death chamber. But in Maryland, while most condemned men sleep on the same tier in the A-Block, they are allowed to mix freely with the rest of the inmate population.

Those deemed security risks are moved across the street to the rigidly controlled Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center -- known as "Supermax." Two condemned men now reside there -- John Thanos, convicted and sentenced twice to die for three murders, and Flint Hunt, facing death for the murder of a Baltimore police officer.

Meanwhile, the others, like Booth, await the outcome of their appeals at the penitentiary and are even allowed to hold leadership positions in prison organizations. Booth, for example, the legal chairman of the NAACP chapter, the 7-Steps Foundation, the Inmate Advisory Council, legal instructor of Project Turnaround and legal counselor for the inmate library.

"I've trained myself in the study of law to keep from drowning in my own sea of misery," he says. "This death sentence has an effect on you like nothing that is conceivable. It's like a doctor telling you you have terminal cancer and are expected to die. But they are looking for cures and one might work."

Booth has had his share of near cures. In 1987, the Supreme Court overturned his death sentence, saying jurors should not have heard a statement describing the anguish of the Bronstein family after the murders.

This ban on victim impact testimony -- which the high court later countermanded -- resulted in the reversal of death sentences for several other prisoners on Maryland's death row, including Willie Reid, the man convicted of being Booth's accomplice in the Bronstein murders.

A year later, Booth was sentenced again to death, but Reid received two life sentences instead. Booth's second death sentence was also set aside by a Court of Appeals ruling in 1989. A third jury sentenced him to the gas chamber again in 1990.

He says he spends 80 percent of his time in the prison law library, helping other prisoners research legal questions and continuing to work on his own appeal. Based on that research, he argues that the application of the death penalty in Maryland is arbitrary.

"Seventy percent of the people here at the pen are convicted of murders that are death-eligible cases," he says. "But there is a gross disproportion between those who are eligible for it and those who receive it. From a legal perspective, it's unfair."

More than once, he says, an inmate has expressed surprise at his situation.

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