Md. court rejects appeal centered on death study

Inmate couldn't prove racial bias in his sentencing, judges say

November 11, 2005|By JENNIFER MCMENAMIN | JENNIFER MCMENAMIN,SUN REPORTER

In a 4-3 decision, Maryland's highest court upheld yesterday the sentence of death row inmate Vernon L. Evans Jr., turning down his appeal based on a state-funded study that found racial and geographic disparities in the state's use of capital punishment.

As they did last month in rejecting a similar appeal from death row inmate Wesley E. Baker, the Maryland Court of Appeals wrote that Evans' motion to correct an illegal sentence "was not the appropriate vehicle to raise this issue" of the study by University of Maryland professor Raymond Paternoster.

But the court appeared to go a step farther in turning down Evans' appeal than the unanimous court did in rejecting Baker, suggesting that a statistical finding of a statewide pattern of discrimination in the administration of the death penalty might not be enough to overturn a particular death sentence.

"Apart from what Evans chose to draw from the statistics compiled by Professor Paternoster, there is nothing in the record of this case to indicate that" the prosecutors, judges or jurors involved with Evans' case were influenced by the fact that he is black and the motel clerks he was paid to gun down in 1983 were white, Judge Alan M. Wilner wrote in the 28-page opinion.

Therefore, Wilner wrote, not only has the study's author disavowed any suggestion that his research proves racial discrimination on the part of anyone in any particular case, but "Evans has been unable to show that any such discrimination was at work in this case."

But lawyers for Evans, 56, say that's not the case.

Julie S. Dietrich said the defense presented evidence of "racial animus" in jury selection at Evans' murder trial, specifically in the number of African-American jurors who were struck from the panel by Baltimore County prosecutors. She said she intends to file a motion for reconsideration with the Court of Appeals on that point.

Dietrich said she will also file a second appeal based on the Paternoster study.

"This Paternoster study has not been addressed on its merits in any fashion by the courts," she said. "It's never been decided at the trial court level or the appellate level by any court in the state of Maryland."

Also at issue in Evans' appeals - his 10th and 11th before the state's highest court - were Maryland's capital sentencing procedures.

Four judges rejected Evans' argument that judges or juries at sentencing should weigh mitigating factors, such as a defendant's troubled childhood, in a case against aggravating factors, such as another felony committed along with a murder, by the standard of "beyond a reasonable doubt" before sentencing a convicted killer to death. Maryland law sets the standard of proof for such decisions at "by a preponderance of the evidence" - a significantly lower legal threshold.

The three dissenting judges made no mention of the University of Maryland study in their written opinion. Instead, Judge Irma Raker, writing for the dissenting judges, said she would have granted Evans' request to overturn his death sentence because the statute should require the stricter standard of proof.

Evans and drug kingpin Anthony Grandison were convicted and sentenced to death in the April 1983 killing of David Scott Piechowicz and Susan Kennedy at the Warren House Motor Hotel in Pikesville. Grandison paid Evans $9,000 to kill Piechowicz and his wife, Cheryl, who were to testify against Grandison in a federal drug trial. Kennedy was working for her sister Cheryl that day, and prosecutors said at trial that they believed Evans mistook Kennedy for her sister on the day of the killings.

Grandison is also on death row.

jennifer.mcmenamin@balt sun.com

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