After commutation, family craves justice

June 18, 2000|By GREGORY KANE

TODAY'S COLUMN is devoted to the only people I want to hear from in the matter of Gov. Parris Glendening's commutation of Eugene Colvin-el's death sentence to one of life in prison without parole.

They are the children of Lena Buckman, the all-but-forgotten victim in the controversy swirling around whether Colvin-el should have been executed earlier this month.

Marjorie Surell, Buckman's daughter, sent me this letter.

"Dear Mr. Kane: Let me identify myself. I am the daughter of the woman Eugene Colvin murdered in 1980.

"Before you make a statement in your column, you should first learn the facts. I am particularly incensed by two false assumptions in your column of Saturday, June 10. Let me quote: `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.'

"Had you bothered to check, you would have found that the fingerprint was on the pane of glass from my downstairs' back basement door that Colvin broke to get into my house, and which was found next to the door. The so-called `jewelry' was a single fake silver-colored dime-store bracelet, possibly a child's, which could have been lost on my lawn (where it was found) any time in the previous days, weeks or months. It was not `jewelry' - it was junk. No `jewelry' was `strewn' anywhere for anyone to find, because Colvin took it with him to sell and pawn. This is an example of the half-truths, misrepresentations and lies which appeared in the media during the weeks before Governor Glendening bowed under pressure and failed to let stand the combined unanimous decisions of two separate juries.

"You probably will not print this, but at least one person - you - will know at least one truth about some of the false claims which have been made in this case."

Surell's brother William Buckman lives in Northbrook, a Chicago suburb. He further elaborated on those fingerprints and Colvin-el's criminal background, which hasn't been much discussed.

"There were four prints found on the glass," Buckman said. "Breaking in the back window was consistent with Colvin-el's m.o." In one incident, Buckman said, Colvin-el broke into a woman's house - by breaking the back door window - tied up the woman and assaulted her with a knife when she came home and discovered him. Using a car he had stolen, Colvin-el rammed a police cruiser when he was caught. Buckman says Colvin-el got 20 years for the burglary and assault and five years for ramming the police car. He was released after six years and, within six months, had murdered Buckman's mother.

"This was a guy with a long history of burglaries and assaults," Buckman stressed. Of the evidence that convicted Colvin-el, Buckman added, "This was not a weak case. This was an irrefutably strong case."

Buckman is not one of these hang-'em-high death penalty advocates. He feels bad for the 14 innocent men recently released from Illinois' death row.

"That was terrible," Buckman said of those cases. "That was bad evidence." He feels part of Glendening's decision may have been in reaction to Gov. George Ryan's instituting a moratorium on the death penalty in Illinois. Other factors, Buckman believes, were "organized and well-endowed anti-death penalty groups, a liberal press [he mentioned The Sun by name], religious leaders (including the pope) and their followers."

Still, Buckman said, he has respect for those opposed to the death penalty for philosophical reasons. "They have some good points," Buckman conceded, but he said racial disparity is not one of them - at least not in Colvin-el's case.

"Nothing was ever done racially," Buckman said of Colvin-el's trial. "When he was caught by police, they weren't looking for an African-American man or a white man. They were looking for a man with a certain set of prints. Colvin-el was not identified as a poor black man, he was identified as a criminal."

Last Friday, Buckman fired off a two-page letter to Glendening, taking the governor to task for inflicting further pain on Lena Buckman's family and accusing the governor of double talk.

"Glendening said, `The role of the governor is not to sit as a final jury and judge,'" Buckman said, contending that is exactly what Glendening did. Buckman is also fuming because he heard about Colvin-el's commutation on the news. No one from the governor's office called him, he said. "I think the state of Maryland could have afforded a long-distance phone call," he said. "Couldn't he have had the human decency to call my sister and me rather than let us hear it on the news?"

Colvin-el's sentence is now life without parole. Glendening says Colvin-el will never walk the streets again. For Buckman, who 20 years later still thinks back with agonizing horror on what the final minutes of his mother's life must have been like, that isn't good enough.

"I know life in prison is no picnic," Buckman said, "but it's too good for him. He deserves to die."

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