Death warrant tests political stand

Glendening ponders his chance to stop scheduled execution

May 06, 2000|By Thomas W. Waldron and Michael Dresser | Thomas W. Waldron and Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

A longtime supporter of the death penalty, Gov. Parris N. Glendening has twice signed orders sending convicted murderers to their death.

But as the governor decides whether to execute a third man, Eugene Colvin-el, death penalty opponents are hopeful that a combination of legal and political factors may persuade him to spare a life this time.

Colvin-el would be the fourth convict put to death in Maryland since the death penalty was reinstated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976. His backers say the prosecution's case against him - made up largely of circumstantial evidence - is the weakest of those that have made it to a Maryland governor's desk since then.

Glendening will make the decision at a time of growing national debate over the fairness of state executions.

In Illinois, Republican Gov. George Ryan, a death penalty supporter, has declared a moratorium on executions after questions were raised about the evidence against several condemned inmates. Some Maryland legislators and other death penalty opponents are calling for such a moratorium here.

And even as Glendening weighs the execution of an African-American, he has authorized a long study of Maryland's criminal justice system to see whether racial bias plays a role in the state's death penalty cases. Of the 17 men on death row here, 12are black.

"It would be bad morally, it would be bad politically, for someone of color to be put to death while you have acknowledged there might be a problem" with the system, said Richard Dowling of the Maryland Catholic Conference.

Matthew A. Crenson, a political science professor at the Johns Hopkins University who closely follows Maryland politics, agreed that Glendening will face political pressure to at least delay Colvin-el's execution until after the racial-bias study is completed.

"By initiating the study, he's saying there's a possibility of error or bias in the system we have," Crenson said. "Having effectively conceded that possibility, it's going to be very hard to proceed in this case."

An Anne Arundel Circuit judge signed the death warrant for Colvin-el on Thursday, scheduling the execution for the week of June 12 and sending the case to Glendening for consideration. The governor has the power to commute the sentence and impose a lesser penalty.

Michael Morrill, a spokesman for the governor, said Glendening has formed no opinion on the case and is waiting for a formal clemency request.

Morrill emphasized that the governor would review the entire record and said political considerations would play no role in the deliberations.

"On the individual case, there is no politics, period," Morrill said. "It is the most difficult decision the governor makes."

Glendening can effectively separate consideration of Colvin-el's case from the broader study of the state's death penalty system, Morrill said.

"That is a systemic review, whereas the review of an individual is a review of the individual's case," he said. "If there had been bias in this individual case that is provable, there is sufficient court remedy for it to be brought out and to be considered."

Colvin-el, 55, was convicted by an all-white jury of the murder in 1980 of Lena S. Buchman, an 82-year-old Florida resident who was killed at her daughter's home in Pikesville. His death sentence was upheld twice by juries and courts.

Unlike some governors, Maryland chief executives have not often been called upon to make life-or-death decisions.

Texas has executed 211 convicts since 1976. Virginia's governors have allowed 76 executions over that span. In Maryland, three men have been put to death in that time.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer had only one such decision to make. Murderer John Thanos, a white man, made the call easier by refusing to contest his death by lethal injection in 1994.

The two death warrants Glendening has approved have involved African-American men whose involvement in their crimes was never in serious doubt. In both cases, the victims were white. Flint Gregory Hunt was executed in July 1997 for the slaying in 1995 of Baltimore police Officer Vincent J. Adolfo. Tyrone X. Gilliam went to his death Nov. 16, 1998 - about two weeks after Glendening's re-election - for the murder in 1988 of 21-year-old Christine Doerfler during a robbery.

Despite the governor's actions in those two cases, death penalty advocates have been cautiously optimistic about his stance after conversations with him in recent months.

Glendening told religious leaders in December that his position on a death penalty moratorium was "evolving."

But the governor did not support legislation proposed in the General Assembly this year to halt executions in the state, and he has offered little hope that he would impose a moratorium himself.

"The governor has said he has not closed his mind to a death penalty moratorium," Morrill said. "He doesn't anticipate imposing one, but he is still talking to people about it."

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