Murder appeal hinges on study

Death penalty cases were tainted by racial bias, UM research says

September 03, 2005|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

Pointing to a study that found geographic and racial disparities in the application of the state's death penalty statute, an attorney for death row inmate Vernon Evans Jr. yesterday told Maryland's highest court that his client should be allowed to argue that Baltimore County prosecutors showed bias in his case.

In court papers, attorneys say the report by University of Maryland professor Raymond Paternoster should be enough to overturn Evans' death sentence. At a minimum, attorney A. Stephen Hut Jr. told the judges on the Court of Appeals yesterday, it merits granting a lower court hearing in which Evans could try to show that other murder defendants whose crimes were "no less horrific" were treated differently.

But an attorney for the state said the crime - a contract machine-gun killing that left two dead, including a witness in a federal case - would have been ripe for the death penalty whether Evans was "black, white, pink or purple."

"This crime ranks up there as one of the worst crimes committed in the state of Maryland," said Assistant Attorney General Annabelle Lisic. "There's no way you can compare that crime to any other in Baltimore County."

Yesterday marked the second time in three months that attorneys for a Maryland death row inmate have appeared before the high court on appeals based on Paternoster's 2003 state-sponsored study.

With the court yet to rule in the case of Wesley Eugene Baker, Hut, one of several attorneys representing Evans, used the half-hour allotted to him yesterday for arguments to highlight the professor's specific findings about Baltimore County's prosecution of death penalty cases.

In a separate look at the county's death penalty-eligible cases from August 1978 through 1999, Paternoster found that homicides with black defendants and white victims were "handled more harshly" than others.

"The Paternoster study is an extremely powerful piece of evidence," Hut said.

Though Baltimore County has a stated policy to seek death in all eligible murder cases except those that fit narrowly drawn exceptions - a situation that county prosecutors say takes the bias out of the process - Hut said lawyers for Evans should be able to examine whether that policy was strictly followed.

But Lisic said prosecutors use a variety of factors in making decisions about individual cases. To even merit a lower court hearing, Evans would have to show that similar cases involving defendants who are not black were handled differently, she said.

"The Paternoster study has absolutely nothing to say about how Mr. Evans was prosecuted in Baltimore County," she said.

Evans, one of at least five death row inmates attempting to use the University of Maryland report to overturn his sentence, was convicted of murder in the 1983 deaths of David Scott Piechowicz and his sister-in-law, Susan Kennedy, at the Pikesville motel where the two were working.

According to testimony, Evans, 55, was paid $9,000 by drug kingpin Anthony Grandison, who was also sentenced to death for the crime, to get rid of Piechowicz and his wife, who were to testify against Grandison in a federal drug case.

Kennedy was working for her sister the day of the killings.

Yesterday's hearing, like Baker's case before it, drew several death penalty opponents who listened to two separate arguments in Evans' case - one based on the study and a separate one alleging problems with the indictment and the way evidentiary standards were applied.

Several members of Evans' family were also there. Gwendolyn Bates, one of his three sisters, said she hoped "something will be said that will change the judges' minds." Bates, who said she visits her brother weekly, said she still believes he is innocent.

"We just believe that someday, he'll be exonerated from the death penalty. He'll be exonerated from prison, and we'll be the one family we were before all this happened," she said.

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