Stay of execution sought for killer

Bishops make appeal

lawyers seek delay until study is done

June 02, 2000|By Dennis O'Brien and John Rivera | Dennis O'Brien and John Rivera,SUN STAFF

Eugene Colvin-el asked the state's highest court yesterday to delay his execution until a yearlong study of Maryland's death penalty is completed, saying that it could show his sentence is unfair.

The legal appeal came as Maryland's three Catholic bishops -- in an unusual move -- held a news conference to call on Gov. Parris N. Glendening to halt the execution, scheduled for the week of June 12.

Cardinal William H. Keeler of Baltimore, along with the two other bishops, pleaded for clemency for Colvin-el and called for an end to the death penalty at a news conference outside St. Mary's Seminary & University in Roland Park.

Keeler was joined by a representative of Cardinal James A. Hickey of Washington, whose diocese includes parishes in suburban Maryland, and Bishop Michael A. Saltarelli of Wilmington, Del., who supervises parishes on the Eastern Shore.

"Earlier this year, I mentioned to Gov. Glendening that Pope John Paul II had announced, in agreement with the officials of the city of Rome, that any time a death penalty sentence is commuted by a civil leader around the world, the lights of the Coliseum would burn for two nights," Keeler said. "And I said to the governor, `It would be wonderful if a decision by Maryland's governor would light up the Coliseum for two nights in succession.' "

The bishops' call for clemency reflects a growing Catholic consensus, led by the pope, against the death penalty on the grounds that a sentence of life without parole makes executions unnecessary to protect public safety.

Keeler and the Maryland bishops have called for clemency before other executions by writing letters to the governor.

Yesterday marked the first time they called a news conference to publicize their position.

Colvin-el's appeal yesterday to the Court of Appeals focuses on a study examining race and the death penalty approved by Glendening this year.

Glendening agreed to fund the $225,000 study during the legislative session after he declined requests from death penalty opponents to impose a moratorium on executions.

The University of Maryland study is expected to begin at the end of summer and take at least a year, according to Michelle Byrnie, a Glendening spokeswoman.

Colvin-el, who at 55 is Maryland's oldest death-row inmate, was convicted in the 1980 slaying of Lena S. Buckman, who was stabbed 28 times in her daughter's Pikesville home.

Colvin-el's Baltimore lawyers, John H. Morris Jr. and Jose Anderson, have also filed a clemency petition with Glendening and an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court asking that it reconsider his case.

In a 12-page petition filed with the Maryland Court of Appeals yesterday, Colvin-el's lawyers said the state study was approved because of cases like his, in which a black defendant is sentenced to death for a conviction based on circumstantial evidence.

"It would be ironic for this court to permit the execution of a defendant who may be the very subject that the legislature was intending to protect, a black defendant who killed a white victim convicted on sparse evidence," the appeal says.

The appeal formally asks the court to conduct a "proportionality review" -- a state-required test to determine whether the death penalty was meted out fairly.

The court ruled that Colvin-el's case met state proportionality requirements in 1984. But the appeal says that the state's death penalty landscape has changed so drastically that another review is needed.

"The 1984 proportionality review, which is now over sixteen years old, is stale, through no fault of the defendant," the petition says.

Of the 18 defendants on Maryland's death row, 12 are black, state officials say.

The state has conducted three death penalty studies since 1993. But the appeal says the state has never examined cases in which prosecutors had considered seeking a death penalty but rejected it.

"Only with a full range of information about the individual defendants potentially, but not ultimately, exposed to the death penalty can this court make a sound proportionality decision," the appeal said.

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