Capital case filled with doubt

Clearly, the state cannot put Eugene Colvin-el to death when such uncertainty remains.

June 04, 2000

NO EVIDENCE proves Eugene Colvin-el ever held the knife used to kill 82-year-old Lena Buckman at her daughter's Pikesville residence 20 years ago.

No fingerprints matching Colvin-el's were found in the room where Buckman was stabbed 28 times, in the bedroom ransacked after the murder or anywhere else in the house.

But Colvin-el is sentenced to death because his prints were found on broken glass outside the home.

He is going to die because he pawned two watches that could have been found among jewelry strewn across the lawn.

He is a condemned man, awaiting execution at the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center in Baltimore, because he had a lawyer who put on no defense at trial, and because his appeals never adequately remedied that injustice.

Sometime during the week of June 12, state officials plan to strap Colvin-el to a gurney and fill his veins with drugs to stop his heart, making him the fourth Maryland prisoner executed since the death penalty was reinstated in 1978.

But to let him die would sanction the worst kind of premeditated killing.

The facts of Colvin-el's case simply don't lead to a moral certainty that he was Buckman's principal murderer, or that he received the "especially vigilant" attention to due process that the Supreme Court expects in capital cases.

His case doesn't meet the common-sense standard that death is reserved for the worst of the worst, convicted by the strongest evidence.

It's not even close.

The moral arc of Colvin-el's case bends toward injustice. It bends toward unfairness and a perilously low standard for state-sanctioned killings. Whether Colvin-el is "innocent" is not at issue. Whether the state has established his guilt as a killer with unwavering affirmation and probity is.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening -- who has a petition for Colvin-el's clemency awaiting his attention -- must stop Maryland from passing final judgment on Colvin-el. He should commute his sentence to life in prison.

It's thin.

Dig through the reams of paper that constitute Eugene Colvin-el's 20-year case file, and this is the conclusion that jumps out regarding the prosecution's case.

Overwhelmingly circumstantial, with a distressingly small amount of evidence to connect Colvin-el with the murder, the file makes for unsettling reading.

Prosecutors say most criminal trials turn largely on circumstantial evidence -- though Colvin-el's case sets a new low in that regard.

Prosecutors also say jurors were able to draw "reasonable inferences" from the evidence to conclude that Colvin-el wielded the knife. But those "inferences" seem more like great leaps.

The state says it happened like this:

On Sept. 9, 1980, between 1 p.m. and 2:45 p.m., Colvin-el broke into the house on Cherokee Drive in Pikesville where Lena Buckman was visiting her daughter, Marjorie Surrell, and her family.

They say he broke a pane of glass in an exterior basement door, entered and stabbed Buckman 28 times with a knife he found in the kitchen. He wiped his hands and the knife with a kitchen towel. Then he rummaged through the master bedroom and stole several thousand dollars' worth of jewelry.

At trial in 1981, the prosecution presented evidence that fingerprints found on the broken glass near the basement door matched Colvin-el's. Evidence was also presented that showed Colvin-el pawned two watches reported stolen from the Surrell home on Sept. 9.

The state's case raised more doubts than it erased:

* Investigators were unable to find any "comparison value" fingerprints (prints complete enough to use for identification) on the knife used to kill Buckman. Did Colvin-el handle it? Prosecutors could not say conclusively that he did. They asserted -- without any supporting evidence -- that the presence of the bloody towel proved Colvin-el wiped his prints off the knife.

* Of the three comparison-quality fingerprints found inside the house -- including a bloody partial palm print on the refrigerator -- not one matched Colvin-el's. Police found the broken glass with Colvin-el's fingerprints outside the home.

Was Colvin-el in the house or just at the scene? Prosecutors offered no conclusive evidence. Were there other people in the house at the time of the robbery and murder? The unidentified bloody palm print on the refrigerator suggests that's possible.

* In written reports, Baltimore County police investigators said the basement door Colvin-el used to gain access would only open "approximately four inches," because a cabinet placed against the basement wall blocked part of the door.

Colvin-el was approximately 5 feet 7 inches tall and 140 pounds at the time of the murder. Could he have slipped through such a small opening? Prosecutors did not offer conclusive evidence.

They found no fingerprints on the door or on items in the basement. The cabinet that partially blocked the door had not been moved.

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