Colvin-el case: Victims' rights are diminished

Wrong: The governor should have let the death sentence stand.

June 11, 2000|By Carmen Amedori

AS THE DEBATE rages and Americans try to sort out the evil from the good concerning capital punishment, Maryland's governor has surrendered to the cries of certain segments of the civil liberties community by agreeing to commute the death sentence of Eugene Colvin-el to life in prison with no possibility of parole.

When Gov. Parris N. Glendening announced his decision Wednesday, he spoiled the strides the state has made for victims' rights. At one time, following the lead of Ronald Reagan and others, Glendening was steadfast in his belief that the death sentence is fitting punishment for terrible crimes such as the one Colvin-el was found guilty of.

Glendening justified his decision by saying that he had concluded that Colvin-el was "almost certainly guilty of this horrible crime but `almost certainly' is not strong enough."

Well, if "almost certainly is not strong enough," why not pardon Colvin-el and let him walk free? "Almost certainly" sounds like the governor has reasonable doubt. Either Colvin-el is guilty or he's innocent. Apparently, the governor believes he is guilty enough to incarcerate for life and innocent enough to avoid lethal injection.

Glendening's decision is a smack in the face to victims' rights, law enforcement, our judicial system, and those who have served jury duty in capital cases.

Glendening campaigned as a proponent of the death penalty who was concerned about the rights of innocent victims such as Lena Buckman, the 82-year-old woman Colvin-el was convicted of murdering. Now, he has broken that promise. This should not have happened. The death penalty is not about racial disparities or political party lines. It is about an honest judicial system which fulfills the rights of victims.

According to the most recent U.S. Department of Justice statistics, there are 3,452 prison inmates on death row in the United States. Of these, 1,906 are African-American, 1,486 white, 29 American Indians, 18 Asians and 13 who are classified as "others."

We must not be duped into supporting the argument of opponents who say a death sentence is the moral equivalent of murder. They use flawed logic that gives equal weight to the end result, which is death.

Using that same logic, one could conclude that there is no difference between rape and consensual sex because both result in a sex act.

Or that there is no difference between kidnapping and jailing someone for a crime because both involve imprisoning someone against their will.

For those who use these arguments to protect the criminal, William Penn, a Quaker, and the founder of Pennsylvania, would have refuted them with: "Justice is justly represented blind, because she sees no difference in the parties concerned. She has but one scale and weight, for rich and poor, great and small. Her sentence is not guided by the person, but the cause...."

Indeed, punishment by death is about justice - timely and true - against crime, the criminal and for victims and their families who have had the misfortune of suffering from violence. Without the ultimate penalty, our criminal justice system is a paper tiger. Ensuring justice for the innocent victims of violent crime should be our priority. To achieve that end, we need to speed up the procedures for carrying out the death penalty.

Under Maryland law, there is an automatic review process in which the Court of Appeals evaluates each case for prejudice to guarantee that the death penalty is not imposed in an arbitrary and capricious manner in violation of the Constitution. The court takes its role very seriously and acts diligently in making these life-determining decisions. Even if there are over-zealous prosecutors, this automatic review affords the check in the balance of our justice system.

It is incumbent upon members of the General Assembly to engage in debate that will promote legislation to cut back on the number of appeals that a death-row convict can seek. It is whole-heartedly unjust and unfair to allow a convicted murderer to sit day after day, year after year in anticipation of meeting the ultimate determiner of the truth. That in itself is a cruel and unjust violation of the Eighth Amendment.

Likewise, Maryland's legislators need to consider the victims' loved ones. Consider how the devoted parents of a murdered child have to renew their hurt every time the killer uses our court system, and its state and federal post-sentencing review procedures, to find a way to get off. This is a clear violation of due process for the victim.

Our legislature should be reminded that the loved ones of the victims are weeping every day. Through each and every hearing, these families wait painfully through the appeals process, hoping that our judicial system does not fail them and our society.

Thus, instead of establishing a death penalty moratorium and commuting sentences of those justly found to be guilty, the legislature should be creating a more efficient system for executions.

The governor's time would be wisely spent preparing a package of proposed legislation for next session that will reduce the appeal time for condemned murderers.

There is a crystal-clear distinction between murder and execution of murderers who have violated their victims pursuit of life, liberty andhappiness.

The recidivism rate for an executed capital murderer is zero.Accordingly, as a compassionate legislative body, we must always err on the side of caution by protecting those not yet harmed.

Carmen Amedori represents Car roll County in the House of Delegates. She is a proponent of the death penalty and sits on the House Judiciary Committee.

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