The right choice on Eugene Colvin-el

Commuted sentence: Governor correct to impose life in prison rather than state-sanctioned death.

June 08, 2000

EUGENE COLVIN-EL has earned the life of a "lifer" in Maryland's prison system.

He has earned the utter isolation and nothingness that consumes daily life inside a maximum security institution. He has earned the right to be in a place where state officials say the goal is "incapacitation," rather than rehabilitation, of inmates.

His involvement in the robbery during which 82-year-old Lena Buckman was killed 20 years ago is more than enough reason that he should not walk the streets as a free man again. But death by lethal injection? That was never a reasonable option in Colvin-el's case.

Not when there was so much uncertainty about whether Colvin-el was Buckman's killer. Not when his counsel at trial was so deficient and subsequent appellate decisions so feeble.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening yesterday made the only moral choice when he stopped Colvin-el's execution, which had been scheduled for next week. Instead, Colvin-el will rightly spend the rest of his life in prison.

It's an important decision -- and not just because it saved one man's life. It means Maryland is heading in the direction of states that are questioning the death penalty and its application.

That's a move away from the philosophy of states such as Texas and Florida, where an assembly-line approach to executions has relegated criminal guilt or innocence to an incidental matter in the process. (Even Texas Gov. George W. Bush has begun to question his state's haste and last week postponed an execution to await evidence that might exonerate an inmate.)

If Maryland is beginning to take more care, it's in good company. Illinois Gov. George Ryan -- a pro-death penalty Republican -- has halted executions there, pending the outcome of a study on the death penalty's fairness. In other states, too, officials are taking a second look at how hastily -- and unfairly -- the ultimate penalty is meted out.

Mr. Glendening's decision puts Maryland in the right place for now. He said certainty -- about a prisoner's guilt and the fairness of the judicial process -- was a necessary element in any decision to end a life. The governor's courageous decision puts Maryland squarely on the moral high ground.

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