Learn from Colvin-el's near-death

June 10, 2000|By GREGORY KANE

'Tis not a good time to be a death-penalty advocate. Eugene Colvin-el escaped the lethal injection table by mere days when Gov. Parris Glendening commuted his death sentence to life imprisonment Wednesday.

He may not die next week, but there will be no parole for Colvin-el, who was convicted 19 years ago in the gruesome killing of Lena Buckman at her daughter's home in Pikesville. Baltimore County prosecutors convinced a jury that Colvin-el broke into the house, stabbed Buckman 28 times, wiped the knife clean, then ransacked the house in search of jewelry, leaving not one fingerprint in the process.

A Colvin-el print was found -- on a piece of glass in a driveway outside the house. Also strewn on the ground was some jewelry the culprit apparently dropped as he fled the scene.

Was Colvin-el the murderer or was he taking a stroll through Pikesville when he happened along, saw the jewelry on the ground, picked up two watches he later pawned and touched the piece of glass in the process? The likely scenario is that Colvin-el committed the deed and left incriminating evidence. Death-penalty proponents should ask themselves if it was possible that career breaking-and-entering specialist Colvin-el was only guilty of the alternate scenario.

That admittedly slight possibility -- along with the fact that no physical evidence placed Colvin-el inside the house -- is what should give us pause. It's probably part of the reason Glendening commuted the sentence. With the revelations across the land of prosecutorial misconduct, false or mistaken eyewitness testimony and a wealth of other boo-boos that sent innocent people to death row, we death-penalty proponents have been taking quite a beating. Should, sometime after Colvin-el had been executed, another person popped up and confessed, "Oh, Colvin-el didn't do that. I committed that crime," it would have been the coup de grace for us. We don't need an innocent man put to death.

That is the strongest argument death-penalty opponents have against us -- that this fatal sentence might indeed result in the state murdering an innocent person. Former New York mayor and current New York Daily News columnist Ed Koch, another death-penalty proponent, isn't too bothered by the possibility. In one of his columns this past year, he opined that executing innocent folks doesn't happen because "we" make sure there are safeguards to prevent it.

Where in the name of perdition Koch gets this "we" nonsense is anyone's guess. His reasoning on the subject of the state executing the innocent seems to have hovered somewhere between the truly baffling and the downright frightening. It's not "we" -- death-penalty advocates -- who have rescued the innocent from America's death rows. It's the tireless, ceaseless, relentless work of death-penalty opponents that has done that. They deserve the credit and the profuse thanks of death-penalty supporters.

But there are death-penalty proponents who are worse than Koch. Rather than buy into Koch's delusional fantasy that "we" do everything possible to prevent the innocent from ending up on death row, these characters will tell you that executing the innocent is a necessary evil, a reasonable risk, of having the death penalty. If you teleported them back in time to the late 19th or early 20th century, you'd likely find them leading one of America's notorious lynch mobs, which strung people up regardless of guilt or innocence.

Death-penalty supporters should cast such rabble out from among us. Then, to make sure we take no more beatings, we should propose some measures to reduce the likelihood that the innocent will end up on death row. I offer these suggestions:

1. We must make sure Ed Koch shuts up. We must demand that he write not another word about the death penalty. He's done enough damage.

2. Each state should have a special public defender's office that handles only death-penalty cases. This unit would have funds for all the private investigators, DNA tests, attorney and support staff salaries that the rich get when they go to trial for murder. No one should end up on death row because he or she didn't have the dollars to hire a good lawyer.

3. Each state should pass legislation requiring that prosecutors who withhold exculpatory evidence from defense attorneys be thrown into jail. That's right. Make it a felony punishable by two to three years in the pokey. Let them know that if they try this foolishness, they may well end up in the slammer alongside some of the folks they've put away. This is not harsh. It is -- to use a favorite death-penalty advocate term -- "deterrence."

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