Death penalty doubts arise with three defendants

November 14, 1998|By GREGORY KANE

THE ROOM on the second floor of Shriver Hall at the Johns Hopkins University filled quickly as the clock approached 8. Students, activists, media types and just plain folks interested in the subject filled the two sections of chairs that ran five across and about 20 deep.

Soon people were huddled along the walls, some standing, others squatting or sitting on the floor. A man who identified himself as Terry Fitzgerald told all assembled the purpose of the night's meeting: There was that nasty business of the death penalty to address, specifically as it related to two men, Tyrone ,, Gilliam and Kenny Collins.

Collins sits on Maryland's death row awaiting his execution in the 1986 slaying of Wayne Leander Breeden. Gilliam's case is more urgent. Sometime next week, the state of Maryland is scheduled to execute him by lethal injection for the 1988 murder of Christine Doerfler.

Both men called in from the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center and talked to members of the audience, most of whom were probably anti-death penalty.

A man who identified himself as John Gilliam Price, Tyrone Gilliam's brother-in-law, handed me seven pieces of paper stapled together. "Affidavit of Delano Drummond," it read at the top.

Drummond is serving a life sentence for Doerfler's murder, as is his brother Kelvin. Both were with Gilliam the night of Dec. 2, 1988, when the trio carjacked Doerfler and forced her to drive to an automated teller machine. The state says Gilliam later shot Doerfler in the back of the head with a sawed-off shotgun. Gilliam even confessed twice. But Delano Drummond swore in his affidavit that Gilliam was not the trigger man, Price assured me.

I sat and tried to figure why Price gave me Drummond's affidavit. Did he sense I had some sort of sympathy for Gilliam? Had he seen on my face how my pro-capital punishment sentiments had taken a beating over the past two weeks?

It had started on Halloween, when I had picked up a copy of the Philadelphia Inquirer and learned that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court had refused to give death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal a new trial. Abu-Jamal, convicted of killing a police officer, has written two books while on death row. The convicted murderer continues to tell Americans things about justice and injustice that we need to hear but probably prefer not to. I found myself in a dilemma: supporting the death penalty and lamenting how I'd feel if Abu-Jamal's much-needed voice were silenced forever.

Damn that Abu-Jamal! Now I'm tormented by Gilliam's date with the executioner. Did he kill Christine Doerfler?

"Damn multiple-suspect homicides!" I mutter to myself as I ruffle through the Drummond affidavit. Homicides with two or more perpetrators are a death penalty proponent's nightmare. Reasonable doubt is built in if there's a dispute about which suspect did the deed. Suspects usually give up each other, but how are we to know who's telling the truth?

Tyrone Gilliam confessed twice to shooting Doerfler. Delano Drummond swears Gilliam didn't do it. Kelvin Drummond fingered Gilliam as the shooter. All three were high on PCP. Messes such as this can quickly make you a death penalty opponent.

But there's nothing like listening to the rhetoric of death penalty opponents to lift a death penalty supporter out of a funk. And they were at Hopkins this night. Sherry Walker of Amnesty International spoke.

"Other countries are horrified we have such an egregious system of justice," Walker claimed, adding that these other countries have abolished the death penalty.

Those other countries don't have our crime rate. They certainly don't have the type of violent criminals who give no quarter to their victims on the street but sometimes ask for it repeatedly when they get to death row.

One fool whose name I didn't catch went so far as to claim that Baltimore County Assistant State's Attorney Sue Schenning had targeted young black men for the death penalty. Obviously deciding that calumnies should come in pairs, he then charged that Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke, when he was the city's state's attorney, rode the case of Flint Gregory Hunt, later executed for killing a police officer, into the mayor's office.

The only person who had the common decency to mention the victim by name was Price, Gilliam's brother-in-law. Questioners lobbed softball questions at Gilliam in spite of his claim that he wasn't the trigger man. But then came a question that several folks said they had had on their minds: If, Gilliam was asked, he didn't shoot Doerfler, who did?

Pub Date: 11/14/98

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