Court hears killer's appeal

Lawyers seek access to Balto. County files to explore racial bias


Lawyers for death row inmate Vernon Lee Evans Jr. told Maryland's highest court yesterday that they should be allowed to put on trial the long-held capital punishment policy of Baltimore County's top prosecutor, whose office has sought the death penalty more often than any other in the state.

Arguing that their client was sentenced under a system that shows evidence of racial bias, Evans' lawyers asked the Maryland Court of Appeals to grant them access to Baltimore County prosecutors' murder case files - and said they might even question under oath longtime county State's Attorney Sandra A. O'Connor.

"We know there are 53 of 152 death-eligible cases in which the state's attorney did not seek the death penalty. We know that of those, 23 involve cases of white defendants allegedly murdering whites," defense attorney A. Stephen Hut Jr. told the court. "We want to look at those."

But Assistant Attorney General Annabelle L. Lisic said that conducting such an inquiry is unnecessary because race has never played a role in Evans' murder prosecution.

"There is still not an iota of evidence that the state sought the death penalty because Mr. Evans is black and his victims were white," she said.

Under O'Connor's policy, county prosecutors seek a death sentence in every eligible murder case except when the victim's family is not willing to endure the lengthy appeals process or when a death sentence could not be secured without the testimony of a co-defendant. O'Connor, who announced in June that she will not seek re-election when her eighth term ends this year, said yesterday in an interview that her approach is "the fair and correct way to apply it."

The arguments unfolded during a 2 1/2 -hour hearing in Annapolis that also covered whether lawyers who represented Evans at his 1992 sentencing hearing met the minimum standards for effective assistance of counsel and whether Maryland's lethal injection procedures are illegal.

Unlike most of the death penalty cases attracting attention nationwide, Evans' lawyers did not focus on whether Maryland's lethal injection procedure amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. They are pursuing that claim in a federal lawsuit.

Rather, the attorneys argued yesterday that Maryland's procedure is illegal because the protocols in the state's execution manual differ from those laid out in its death penalty statute, and because the procedure was developed without legally required public input.

The hearing attracted a crowd that included a group of death penalty opponents who spent three days marching from Baltimore to Annapolis to draw attention to the proceedings. Also attending were several members of Evans' family, two Baltimore County prosecutors who have handled the Circuit Court appeals in the case and a former Illinois death row inmate exonerated in 1987 after more than nine years in prison.

"I've never left death row. I'm still there because I'm in the fight to abolish the death penalty," Darby Tillis, 63, said. "Vernon Evans is on the ropes and anything I can do to help him ... I will."

Evans, 56, was sentenced to death for the contract killings of David Scott Piechowicz and his wife's sister, Susan Kennedy, who were gunned down April 28, 1983, with a submachine pistol in the lobby of the Pikesville motel where they worked. 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. Grandison 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 the imposition of the death penalty in Maryland.

Among the findings were that Baltimore County prosecutors sought death sentences in 99 of the 152 death-eligible murder 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.

Because O'Connor has served as Baltimore County's top prosecutor since being elected in 1974, the decision of whether to seek a death sentence in those 152 cases ultimately was hers.

The judges peppered Hut, the defense lawyer, with questions about plans for a selective prosecution claim against the longtime state's attorney.

"You would put Ms. O'Connor on the stand and ask her to explain to a judge why she made the decision to seek death in this one and that one?" Judge Alan M. Wilner asked.

Hut initially responded that Evans' defense team did not intend anything "that drastic."

"It's not that we're going to rake prosecutors over the coals," he said, explaining that he and his colleagues are particularly interested in reviewing prosecutors' files on white defendants accused of killing white victims in cases in which O'Connor decided not to seek a death sentence. But Hut later added that "prosecutors are not beyond examination."

Reached by phone after the hearing, O'Connor said she did not understand how her record on death penalty cases amounted to selective prosecution.

"We have never, ever chosen to seek or not to seek the death penalty in a case based on race," she said. "It has never been an issue and never will be an issue as long as I am the state's attorney."

It is unclear when the seven judges might issue a decision in Evans' case.

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