3-day march protests death penalty

Final leg coincides with hearing today on Evans appeal


Hoping to draw attention to today's death penalty hearing at the Maryland Court of Appeals, a small group of anti-death penalty activists set out yesterday on the second leg of a three-day walk from Baltimore to Annapolis.

Lawyers for death row inmate Vernon Lee Evans Jr. will argue before the state's highest court that the convicted killer should be granted a hearing to explore whether he was unfairly sentenced to death because of the policy of Baltimore County's top prosecutor and because of statewide racial and geographic disparities in the use of capital punishment. The attorneys are also asking for a new sentencing hearing and an injunction barring state executions until Maryland's lethal injection procedures are rewritten to correct flaws that Evans' lawyers say render the procedure unconstitutional.

"We've got this incredible moment coming up, when the Court of Appeals looks at all the issues that are essential to the administration of the death penalty in Maryland," said Michael Stark, an organizer with the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. "Marching is the perfect way to show our personal commitment and to draw the public's attention."

A group of about 50 death penalty opponents left Baltimore on Saturday morning, gaining and losing participants along the 10-mile route from the maximum-security prison that houses death-row prisoners to a small brick church in Glen Burnie, organizers said. There, at St. Alban's Episcopal Church, some marchers participated in a community forum before settling in for the night on air mattresses and in sleeping bags.

Others went home, returning in the morning for the second leg of the journey, which coordinators were calling "From the death house to the courthouse."

"On the death penalty, for me, the theology is very simple. What part of `Thou shall not kill' do you not understand?" said the Rev. Bob Wickizer, the interim rector of the Glen Burnie congregation, who played host to the anti-death penalty group over the objections of some of his church members.

"These are ordinary people doing extraordinary things," he said of the marchers. "That's what this is going to be about. It's not going to be about people with white collars changing people's minds about the death penalty. It's going to be about electricians and students and street people making change through these extraordinary acts."

Carrying signs and chanting, a group of 13 marchers - including one man in a wheelchair carrying a yellow wooden peace sign - headed out yesterday. With a trio of slow-moving vehicles trailing them, the activists walked along Ritchie Highway.

"There are a lot of people we're passing who don't think about the death penalty that much," said Adrienne Ashford, 24, an elementary school teacher who lives in Washington. "Just getting people thinking about it is a way to start changing things."

The final leg of the march today is scheduled to take participants from Asbury United Methodist Church in Arnold to the Court of Appeals building in Annapolis for a demonstration before the court hearing.

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, who is also on Maryland's death row.

Evans' execution, scheduled for February, was put on hold when the appeals court agreed to hear four legal challenges, including one based on a state-funded University of Maryland study released in 2003 that found racial and geographic disparities in Maryland's imposition of the death penalty.

Among the findings were that Baltimore County prosecutors sought death sentences 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 that prosecutors pursued the death penalty in 83 percent of cases involving a black defendant and a white victim and in 60 percent of cases involving all other racial combinations - a practice that Evans' lawyers say amounts to selective prosecution.

Baltimore County State's Attorney Sandra A. O'Connor has long maintained a policy of seeking death sentences in every eligible murder case, except when the victim's relatives are not willing to endure the lengthy appeals process or when a death sentence could not be secured without the testimony of a co-defendant.

Lawyers for the state contend that Evans is not entitled to any of the hearings that his attorneys have requested because the issues raised in his most recent legal challenges have been settled during 12 years of appeals.

jennifer.mcmenamin@ baltsun.com

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