Death-penalty opponents call for end to executions in Md.

Decision to spare killer will hamper justice, officials say

June 09, 2000|By Dennis O'Brien and Timothy Wheeler | Dennis O'Brien and Timothy Wheeler,SUN STAFF

Buoyed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening's decision to spare Eugene Colvin-el, death-penalty opponents vowed yesterday to keep pressing for a halt to all executions in Maryland.

Prosecutors say that Glendening's decision will make relatives of homicide victims more reluctant to seek justice.

Death penalty opponents say Glendening's decision is an initial victory, but only part of a long-term campaign.

"The feeling is that with Colvin-el's case, the tide is beginning to turn," said Brandy Baker of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty.

She said the group, bolstered by reprieves in Texas and Illinois, will continue to meet, hold rallies, raise money and keep watch for Maryland's next execution, several months away.

Black elected officials also vowed to keep pressing Glendening for a moratorium on executions until a state-funded review is finished of the disproportionate number of blacks on Maryland's death row.

"The campaign shall continue," said Del. Salima S. Marriott, a Baltimore Democrat who with other black legislators persuaded the governor to fund a $225,000 study of how the death penalty is administered in the state.

With Colvin-el's sentence commuted to life in prison without parole, 11 of the 17 inmates remaining on death row are black.

Though Glendening said he did not consider Colvin-el's race in sparing him, Marriott said the case illustrates black lawmakers' concern about discrimination in Maryland's criminal justice system, particularly in murder cases in which the death penalty may be imposed.

"He [Glendening] is not dealing with the larger issue that this is a very racially disparate death row," Marriott said. "It is like that because of the system."

Calling Colvin-el a "poor black man," she said, "You can clearly see if he were wealthy he would never be convicted based on circumstantial evidence."

Black lawmakers have urged Glendening to put executions on hold for up to three years, to allow the General Assembly time to review the death-penalty study, which is to be finished by the 2002 legislative session.

"Whatever time it takes, when you're talking about death - the ultimate penalty for a crime - then be it two years or seven years, I think it's worth the wait," said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Democrat whose district covers parts of the city and Baltimore County.

Cummings said he believes that if Glendening was concerned enough about the death penalty to agree to fund the study, he should agree to the moratorium.

He said Colvin-el's case has raised questions about the adequacy of evidence, about racial disparity in sentencing and about the competency of defense lawyers.

"Just the idea of killing someone," Cummings said, "and then you say, `Oops! We made a mistake.' I tell you, it's kind of scary."

Prosecutors said yesterday that Glendening's decision will make it tougher to persuade relatives of homicide victims to support the death penalty, knowing a death sentence could be reversed - after years of appeals - days before the execution.

"It makes it much more difficult for the family of a victim to endure such a lengthy process when it all can be reversed by one man," said Baltimore County State's Attorney Sandra A. O'Connor, whose office has prosecuted 11 of the 17 inmates on death row.

O'Connor said she has no intention of reversing a longstanding policy of seeking the death penalty in every case where the circumstances meet state requirements for it. The two exceptions are when the case depends solely on accomplice testimony or when a victim's family prefers a sentence of life or life without parole.

O'Connor said the policy continues to be widely supported.

"I've had defense lawyers tell me they're glad they live in Baltimore County," she said.

Anne Arundel State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee said he will mention the governor's commutation to families of murder victims in the future when he discusses the death penalty with them.

"It certainly would wear on victims. I think they'd feel as if they had the rug pulled out from under them," Weathersbee said.

State law requires that a defendant be a principal in a homicide, meaning that he must be the trigger man or the one who struck the fatal blow.

The law allows for exceptions for contract killings and slayings of police officers.

Of the four death row inmates in the final stages of state and federal appeals, three are black: Wesley Baker, Vernon Evans and Anthony Grandison. The white inmate is Steven Oken.

All are Baltimore County defendants convicted of killing white victims. Baker was sentenced by a Harford County judge in the 1991 fatal shooting of Jane Tyson at Westview Mall in Baltimore County. Evans and Grandison were convicted of killing David Scott Piechowiczand Susan Kennedy in 1983. Oken was convicted of killing Dawn Garvin in 1987.

Of the four, the next inmate expected to face execution is Baker. O'Connor said yesterday the case against Baker is ironclad, with fingerprints, a murder weapon and an eyewitness who chased the defendant from the crime scene and later identified him.

Gary E. Blair, who oversees death penalty cases for the state attorney general's office, said that Baker's case was argued in April before the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond.

He said that court usually takes about four months to decide a cases and that if a defendant loses at that level, he has 90 days to file an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court usually decides such appeals in 30 days, he said.

State prison officials said Colvin-el will be moved in the next few days to a maximum-security section of the Maryland House of Correction Annex in Jessup.

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