Governor gets 2nd chance to make the right decision

June 07, 2000|By Gregory Kane

Perhaps Gov. Parris Glendening needs to hear this from a death penalty supporter: Commute Eugene Colvin-el's sentence to life imprisonment without parole now. Don't make the mistake you made with the 1998 execution of Tyrone X Gilliam.

The clock is ticking on Colvin-el. Without Glendening's intervention, sometime next week the state of Maryland will execute him. It will inject Colvin-el with a substance that will kill him, based on the state's strongest evidence - his fingerprints found on a piece of broken glass outside of a murder scene.

Even die-hard, hang-'em-high death penalty proponents should have a problem with that, just as we should have had in the Gilliam case. In that one, the state's strongest evidence was the testimony of Kelvin Drummond, who just happened to be Gilliam's co-defendant. Drummond fingered Gilliam as the man who shot Christine Doerfler to death in December 1988. Gilliam, Drummond and his brother Delano Drummond had carjacked Doerfler just before the murder.

Exactly what convinced Baltimore County prosecutors of the veracity of Kelvin Drummond's testimony we can only conjecture. But his status as an honest, law-abiding citizen was definitely not a factor. He was the first of the three suspects police arrested after Doerfler's murder and immediately identified Gilliam as the shooter. But if he was the shooter, what did cops and prosecutors expect him to say: "I cannot tell a lie, I shot her"?

It's just as possible that Kelvin Drummond was the trigger man who lied to get a lesser sentence and protect his own skin. He also could have lied to save his brother. The state may have executed Doerfler's murderer in late 1998. But the murderer might still be alive.

With such uncertainty surrounding that case, Glendening should have commuted Gilliam's sentence to life without parole long ago. He didn't. There's no reason to believe he's going to show any more backbone in the Colvin-el case, but he should.

The Republican governor of Illinois suspended the death penalty in his state after learning that more than a dozen innocent men had been unjustly convicted. Chicago Tribune reporters found all sorts of things wrong with how the death penalty was administered in Illinois, from prosecutorial misconduct to mistaken eyewitness identification. It will be interesting to see if the liberal Democrat Glendening lets this conservative Republican out-liberal him on the death penalty issue.

Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for the governor, said yesterday that Glendening is not considering a suspension of the death penalty. (The governor might be right on that one. A suspension might prevent the execution of those who are truly deserving. The perpetrators of the mass killings in Belair-Edison late last year - five women were shot to death - come to mind.) Instead, the governor is awaiting the results of a $225,000 study slated to begin at the end of the summer that will reveal if the death penalty is administered unfairly in Maryland. While he waits, the governor studies the Colvin-el case very carefully, Guillory said.

"He has been reviewing the files," Guillory said. "He won't comment or release information as he's reviewing the case. This is a very serious case."

Few in Maryland want to be in the governor's shoes on this one. This is a serious case indeed - and not an easy one. Colvin-el was convicted in the 1980 slaying of Lena Buckman, an elderly Pikesville woman. She was stabbed 28 times. Prosecutors argued it was Colvin-el who brutally murdered Buckman and then ransacked her daughter's home - where Buckman was staying - for jewelry. Even though Colvin-el pawned two watches that were stolen from the house, his fingerprints were not found anywhere in the home he supposedly ransacked. His print was found on a piece of glass outside the house, where anyone could have come along and touched it. Colvin-el might have picked up the watches from among several pieces of jewelry found in the driveway outside the house. He might have been the killer or he might just have been strolling through Pikesville.

Despite those facts, members of Buckman's family - at least one of whom has written to this paper asserting Colvin-el is the murderer - has remained convinced of his guilt. Glendening has to take the anguish and suffering Buckman's murder caused her family into account. But he also has the ultimate responsibility of making sure that when the state kills a man, it had better be 100 percent certain the man deserves to die.

The state failed to do that in the case of Tyrone X Gilliam. Glendening has the chance to do it in the case of Eugene Colvin-el. But he needs to act soon. Colvin-el's execution is set for sometime next week. The clock is ticking, governor.

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