Death penalty issue reaches critical mass

Maryland opponents coalescing around the case of Colvin-el in Maryland

June 07, 2000|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

As Gov. Parris N. Glendening decides whether Eugene Colvin-el should die next week, death penalty opponents say that the political climate is shifting in their favor.

Colvin-el, 55, is scheduled to die by lethal injection sometime next week for the 1980 slaying of Lena S. Buckman in Pikesville.

But Maryland's death penalty opponents - bolstered by concerns about executions in Texas and Illinois - say that more people are attending rallies, contributing cash and expressing support than before either the 1998 execution of Tyrone Gilliam or the 1997 execution of Flint Gregory Hunt.

"Finally, after all these years, we've reached a critical mass where people are starting to listen and take notice," said Cathy Knepper of Kensington, who is coordinating efforts to spare Colvin-el's life for Amnesty International.

Three members of Congress, Baltimore's mayor and former mayor and many state officials have called for a moratorium on executions until the completion of a yearlong study of whether the death penalty is racially biased.

Buckman's children, who want Colvin-el to be executed, acknowledge that there are increasing concerns about the death penalty nationwide. But they say Glendening should base his decision on the facts of the case, not the rhetoric of death penalty opponents.

"They're trying to suggest that the evidence is flimsy when in fact the evidence is very strong," said the victim's son, William Buckman, 70, of Northbrook, Ill. "The momentum, unfortunately, is not going in our direction, but the facts of the case are the facts of the case."

Glendening has received a few more letters and calls than he did before previous executions, said Michael Morrill, a Glendening spokesman.

He said the nearly 800 letters and e-mails favor clemency by a margin of about 60-to-40.

About 200 people have called the governor's office on the matter, with about 70 percent of them favoring execution, Morrill said.

The governor, who allowed the executions of Hunt and Gilliam to proceed, has given no indication what he will decide.

Many of the letters sent to the governor are form letters prompted by organizations. More than 100 letters have come from outside the United States, probably generated by a request from London-based Amnesty International to its members, Morrill said.

"There is quite a number of facts which make Colvin-El's guilt doubtful if not impossible," wrote Kurt Adel of Vienna, Austria.

"The execution of Colvin-El would mean the utter breakdown of justice in your state and expose it to contempt."

Morrill said the governor is reading a sampling of the letters, but will base his decision on the legal record, which includes letters from the victim's family and from Colvin-el's lawyers.

A decision is expected this week.

"His decision is going to be based on an extensive and exhaustive review of the entire record," Morrill said.

Colvin-el has more advocates than Hunt or Gilliam had, according to those familiar with Maryland's previous executions.

Jerome Nickerson, Jr., the lawyer who represented Gilliam, said that when he was executed in 1998, many political and religious leaders were not as willing to speak out.

"We weren't this organized. We didn't have the money, we didn't have the people, a lot of people weren't really going public like they are now," Nickerson said.

The state's Catholic bishops wrote letters before the Hunt and Gilliam executions, but did not hold a press conference to oppose those executions, as they did last week for Colvin-el.

Katy O'Donnell, the assistant public defender who represented Hunt, said that opposition to the death penalty was just beginning to build with her client's execution in 1997.

"It takes time for people to catch on," she said.

State Del. Salima S. Marriott of Baltimore, who proposed a moratorium on the death penalty during the 2000 legislative session, said that she and other legislators convinced Glendening to fund a $225,000 study on race and the death penalty because of concerns about the disproportionate number of blacks on Maryland's death row.

Twelve of the 18 prisoners are black.

"Even people who believe in the death penalty, when they hear the numbers, they're alarmed by them," she said.

The increased support has translated into more contributions for newspaper advertisements and a greater awareness of Colvin-el's case, death penalty opponents say.

"It's been incredibly encouraging," said Michael Stark, Maryland coordinator of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty.

Stark said the group had no trouble raising the $5,900 needed for a half-page newspaper ad earlier this year.

He said momentum for saving Colvin-el began to build in January when Illinois Gov. George Ryan, a Republican who supports the death penalty, suspended all executions after an investigation found that 13 death row inmates had been wrongly convicted.

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