Evans' lawyers challenge policy of prosecutors

Court of Appeals is asked to grant new sentencing hearing for convicted killer

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

In a brief filed yesterday with Maryland's highest court, lawyers for death row inmate Vernon Lee Evans Jr. asked for a hearing to explore whether he was unfairly sentenced to death because of the policy of Baltimore County's top prosecutor as well as statewide racial and geographic disparities in the use of capital punishment.

The argument is one of four laid out in a 75-page brief submitted to the Maryland Court of Appeals yesterday - the filing deadline set by the court when it halted the convicted killer's scheduled execution on Feb. 6 to hear his legal challenges.

In their filing, Evans' lawyers also asked for a new sentencing hearing, arguing that the attorneys who represented him at a 1992 sentencing hearing failed to provide effective counsel.

The filing requests a new trial, arguing that a prosecutor unconstitutionally stripped the jury of nearly all African-Americans at his 1984 trial.

Evans' attorneys also asked for an injunction barring state executions until Maryland's lethal injection procedures are rewritten to correct flaws that Evans' lawyers say renders the procedure unconstitutional.

Attorneys for the state have until April 3 to file their response. Oral arguments are scheduled for May.

Evans, 56, was sentenced to death for the 1983 contract killings of two Pikesville motel employees, David Scott Piechowicz and his wife's sister, Susan Kennedy. Piechowicz and his wife, Cheryl, had been scheduled to testify in a federal drug case against Baltimore drug lord Anthony Grandison.

Grandison was convicted of offering Evans $9,000 to kill the Piechowiczes, who could have linked Grandison to a room at the Pikesville Motor House Hotel where federal authorities had discovered heroin and cocaine.

In their brief, Evans' lawyers base some of their arguments on a 2003 state-funded study that found racial and geographic disparities in Maryland's imposition of the death penalty.

They quote a supplemental report released last year that found that Baltimore County prosecutors sought a death sentence in 99 of the 152 death-eligible cases handled between August 1978, when Maryland's current death penalty law took effect, and December 1999.

Researchers found 83 percent of cases involved a black defendant convicted of killing a white victim, but 60 percent of cases involved all other racial combinations - a practice that Evans' lawyers contend amounts to unconstitutionally selective prosecution.

But Stephen Bailey, deputy state's attorney for Baltimore County, has questioned the accuracy of the statistics used in the death penalty study.

He says that Baltimore County prosecutors sought the death penalty in 81 cases - not 99, as the study concludes - between 1978 and 1999. The difference, he said, lies in the number of cases that were retried and that researchers counted as separate cases, including one defendant whose death sentence was overturned four times before he was sentenced to life in prison.

Bailey's boss, Baltimore County State's Attorney Sandra O'Connor, began developing a policy in the early 1980s of seeking the death penalty in every death-eligible murder case, except when the victim's relatives are not willing to endure the lengthy appeals process that accompanies capital cases or when a death sentence could not be secured without the testimony of a co-defendant.

Evans' lawyers wrote in their brief that they should be granted discovery - such as documents, depositions and other evidence - to explore the "factual issues" relating to O'Connor's policy.

jennifer.mcmenamin @baltsun.com

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