Worthy causes and tough cases

Attorneys: Two lawyers put together a case that persuades the governor to spare a man's life.

June 09, 2000|By Dennis O'Brien and Del Quentin Wilber | Dennis O'Brien and Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

John H. Morris Jr. always wanted to handle a death penalty case.

Jose Anderson wasn't so sure.

The two lawyers joined forces seven years ago to put together a case that persuaded Gov. Parris N. Glendening to commute convicted murderer Eugene Colvin-el's death sentence to life without parole Wednesday. Glendening's decision, the first commutation in Maryland since 1987, was the culmination of 16 years of work for Morris and seven for Anderson.

Both lawyers said they were ecstatic when the decision was announced.

They were more circumspect yesterday.

"Right now, I'm finding a little place for reflection," said Morris, 47.

Morris was working for the Baltimore law firm Venable, Baetjer and Howard in 1984 when the public defender's office asked him to take Colvin-el's case.

It was Morris' reputation as a bright light and one of the few black partners in any major Baltimore law firm that persuaded Anderson to sign on as co-counsel in 1993.

"I remember saying no," Anderson recalled.

Anderson agreed to help after reading the appellate opinion in the case three times.

It helped that the Anderson and Morris knew each other. Morris had tried to recruit Anderson to join Venable in the early 1990s. He turned down the offer, but the two remained friends.

"John's a real intellect," Anderson said.

From the beginning, the two lawyers found a case that they say was riddled with problems.

Colvin-el was convicted of murder and sentenced to die for killing 82-year-old Lena Buckman, a Florida woman who was visiting her daughter in Pikesville in 1980.

Police found Colvin-el's fingerprint outside the house and learned that he had pawned jewelry taken from the house.

Morris and Anderson focused their arguments on proving that Colvin-el's original lawyer didn't adequately represent him. They also zeroed in on the lack of proof that Colvin-el had entered the house, Morris said.

Colvin-el was sentenced to death by an Anne Arundel County jury in 1981, but Maryland's highest court ordered a new sentencing hearing.

After Colvin-el was again sentenced to die in 1992, Morris filed more motions and more appeals. His final appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court was rejected in April. His request for a stay, to the Maryland Court of Appeals, was denied Wednesday.

With a death warrant signed, Colvin-el's last chance was with the 28-page plea for clemency filed with Glendening.

"The governor's decision was one of those rare instances of human justice," Morris said. "The sooner more of us understand that, the better off our society will be."

Morris grew up in Edmondson Village and graduated from Polytechnic Institute in 1971. He attended Yale University, then Yale University School of Law.

He says he became a lawyer because his father - whom he describes as one of the smartest men he has known - wanted him to "sustain himself." He clerked for a federal judge, then became a federal public defender, winning an acquittal during his first jury trial, that of a woman charged with shoplifting at Fort Meade.

He moved to the U.S. Department of Education, then to Venable. He left the firm in 1993 to start his own practice, concentrating on discrimination law. He would like to teach, maybe start a public policy program at Coppin State College.

Anderson was born in Baltimore and raised on his grandparents' hog farm in Elkridge.

He is a 1981 graduate of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where he edited the school newspaper and set two school records - for the 100 and 200 meters - while running track.

He began clerking for a Baltimore law firm while attending the University of Maryland Law School and went to work for the public defender's office when he graduated in 1984. He worked in the public defender's appellate division, in Baltimore until he resigned in 1993 to accept a full-time teaching position at the University of Baltimore Law School.

For Morris, a high point of the case occurred in the late 1980s, when Morris' father, a former clerk at the Social Security Administration, saw his son argue before the Maryland Court of Appeals on Colvin-el's behalf , the only time his father watched him in court.

Both lawyers were described as talented advocates with skills and experience worth far more than the $30 an hour the public defender's office pays for such work. Morris is widely respected for his intellect. "Anyone who has John Morris representing him has the right attorney," said James L. Shea, a former colleague at Venable. "I think John seeks out tough cases and worthy causes."

Both lawyers are against the death penalty. But Morris also is convinced that Colvin-el didn't commit the murder.

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