Supreme Court to review death penalty law

February 24, 1994|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Maryland's death penalty law, after withstanding years of broad constitutional challenges in the Supreme Court, is getting a closer look there in the case of a Baltimore County murderer.

The court has ruled from time to time on specific parts of Maryland's capital case procedures but has repeatedly refused to hear death row inmates' claims that the entire law is unconstitutional.

The latest such claim, made by public defenders for Eugene Sherman Colvin-El, has led the court to ask the Maryland Court of Appeals to send to Washington the full background record of his case. That unusual request often means that one or more members of the court want to pore over a case before deciding how to react.

The Court of Appeals upheld Colvin-El's death sentence last September in a 5-2 ruling. Colvin-El's lawyers noted in their appeal that the Supreme Court "has not passed upon a full-blown constitutional challenge to Maryland's capital sentencing scheme" and should do so now that the state's first execution under the present law "looms near."

Death row inmate John Thanos, who has said he wants no more appeals pursued to save him, may be executed next month. That schedule, however, may be drawn out by further legal maneuvers to stall the resumption of executions in the state.

Colvin-El is one of three Maryland death row inmates with appeals that have just become ready for the Supreme Court's response, but the court took no action on any of them this week.

The court may act next week on two of the cases -- appeals by Baltimore murderers Kenneth Lloyd Collins and Gregory Flint Hunt. Neither of those cases, however, raises the sweeping constitutional challenge that Colvin-El's appeal does, and neither getting the same attention.

The court still has the option of rejecting Colvin-El's claims after it gets a closer look. It rejected his first appeal -- also making a broad constitutional challenge to the death sentence in Maryland -- in October 1984.

Colvin-El was sentenced to die for the 1980 stabbing murder of an elderly Florida woman who was visiting her daughter in Pikesville.

Maryland's death penalty law drew sharp criticism from the late Justice Thurgood Marshall, and Colvin-El's lawyers are seeking to use that criticism anew in his latest challenge. Justice Marshall was one of two justices who opposed the death penalty in all cases; the other was retired Justice William J. Brennan Jr. Both voted in 1984 to strike down Colvin-El's death sentence.

Since those two justices' retirement, the court has had no member totally opposed to the death penalty, but Justice Harry A. Blackmun -- now the senior justice -- stepped forward Tuesday as a new opponent.

In a death penalty case from Texas, Justice Blackmun announced for the first time, "From this day forward, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death."

Saying that the death penalty as now carried out in this country is unconstitutional, Justice Blackmun said, "I feel morally and intellectually obligated simply to concede that the death penalty experiment has failed."

He lambasted his colleagues for years of making "futile" rulings in capital cases, resulting in what he said was a conflicting maze that had not resolved the problem of death sentences being handed out arbitrarily.

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