Evans waits for word on appeals

Catholic church leaders urge the governor to commute death row inmate's sentence

General Assembly

February 04, 2006|By JENNIFER MCMENAMIN | JENNIFER MCMENAMIN,SUN REPORTER

With an execution warrant scheduled to go into effect Monday, death row inmate Vernon Lee Evans Jr. awaited word yesterday from Maryland's highest court on several pending appeals as leaders of the Roman Catholic church implored the governor to commute Evans' death sentence.

Also yesterday, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. received a statement -- signed by religious and civil rights leaders, professors and the author of a state-funded study that found geographic and racial disparities in imposition of capital punishment -- calling for ending executions until the system can be overhauled.

Emphasizing their "range of viewpoints" on the death penalty, those who signed the statement asked the governor and legislature to "halt all executions until steps have been taken to assure (1) that the innocent are not sentenced to death, (2) that the death penalty is reserved for only the `worst of the worst' among the guilty, and (3) that racial bias ... plays no role."

Evans, 56, was sentenced in the 1983 contract killings of two employees of a Pikesville motel. A death warrant signed by a Baltimore County judge authorizes his execution during the five-day period that begins at 12:01 a.m. Monday.

A clerk with the Maryland Court of Appeals informed the defense team late yesterday afternoon that the judges would not rule before Monday on appeals pending before the court. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denied yesterday a request to overturn the ruling of a federal judge, who rejected Evans' challenge to Maryland's lethal injection procedure.

In letters yesterday, church leaders with the Maryland Catholic Conference and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops asked Ehrlich to spare Evans' life.

"We are not unmindful of the suffering visited upon the families of Susan Kennedy and Scott Piechowicz, whose murders led to Mr. Evans' conviction," wrote Cardinal William H. Keeler, the archbishop of Baltimore; Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, the archbishop of Washington; and Bishop Michael A. Saltarelli of Wilmington, Del.

"They are in our prayers, especially now, as the publicity surrounding the scheduled execution compels them to experience once again the utter sadness they must have first felt on that day in 1983 when they learned of their losses," the church leaders added. "Had the life-without-parole sentence been available at the time of Evans' trial, their reliving of that terrible time might have been avoided. That sentence is available now and we ask you to apply it as a substitution for execution."

The Vatican's envoy to Washington, Apostolic Nuncio Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo, made a similar appeal this week.

Evans' attorneys also sent the governor information about the options presented to jurors at his sentencing hearing. Evans is the first death row inmate to be considered by Ehrlich whose jury was not given the option of life without parole. The legislature did not make that punishment available until 1987.

Capital defense attorney Julie S. Dietrich said that four of the six jurors contacted by the defense team said they would have chosen life without parole as a sentence for Evans, had they been given the option. Death sentences must be decided by a unanimous vote in Maryland.

"That makes him a very different candidate for clemency than the others before him," Dietrich said of Steven Howard Oken and Wesley Eugene Baker, who were executed in 2004 and 2005, respectively.

jennifer.mcmenamin @baltsun.com

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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