Groups seek moratorium on executions; Supporters of convict in 1980 murder case petition governor; 'There are holes here'; Death sentence could be carried out by middle of June

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Death penalty opponents are stepping up pressure on Gov. Parris N. Glendening to spare the life of Eugene Colvin-el, who could be executed next month for fatally stabbing an 82-year-old woman during a robbery in her daughter's Pikesville home.

Colvin-el's supporters are collecting petition signatures, planning a community meeting and have purchased a half-page advertisement in The Sun asking Glendening to commute the sentence and impose a moratorium on executions.

"We're encouraging people to call and write the governor and to send e-mails if they can to make their feelings known," said Stephanie Gibson of the Maryland Coalition Against State Executions.

The U.S. Supreme Court's rejection of Colvin-el's appeal a week ago -- traditionally the last step in the appeals process for defendants sentenced to death in Maryland -- also has renewed debate about the evidence in Colvin-el's case and the issue of capital punishment.

Colvin-el, 55, was convicted of the robbery and murder Sept. 9, 1980, of Lena S. Buckman of Cocoa Beach, Fla., who traveled to Pikesville to spend the Jewish High Holidays with her daughter.

Colvin-el was charged after his fingerprint was found on a piece of broken glass from a basement door that police say he used to enter the house. He also pawned two watches stolen from the home.

During his trial in 1981, Colvin-el declined to testify or call witnesses. But he told the jury before being sentenced that he was innocent.

John H. Morris Jr., who has represented Colvin-el since 1984, said no evidence was found to prove that his client entered the home where the murder occurred. The fingerprint was on glass found outside the home and the jewelry wasn't pawned until eight days after the murder, he said.

"There are holes here that the evidence doesn't close," he said.

Colvin-el's relatives also say that police, pressured to make an arrest, could have planted his fingerprint at the scene. The basement door that police say was used to enter the house could be opened only four inches because a metal cabinet was blocking it, they say.

"Was he Houdini that he could just make himself appear in the house like that, and then disappear without a trace?" asked Norma Brooks-McRoy, 34, of Baltimore, Colvin-el's niece.

But Mickey Norman, the Baltimore County prosecutor who has worked on the case since 1989, said that Colvin-el had learned from experience how not to leave clues behind.

At the time of the murder, Colvin-el had 16 convictions, including 11 for burglary. In one armed robbery in 1972, he broke into a home a mile from the Pikesville murder scene, tied up an elderly woman and threatened her with a kitchen knife.

He was on parole for that offense at the time of the Buckman murder. Norman said Colvin-el stabbed Buckman 28 times.

"There was no DNA evidence because he didn't cut himself and bleed," Norman said. "But he butchered this woman."

The case has haunted Buckman's family for 20 years.

"When I think of how my mother, who was a very compassionate, loving woman, spent the last moments of her life, it's hard to take," said William Buckman, 70, of Chicago.

Buckman and his sister, Marjorie Surell, 75, of Baltimore, said that Colvin-el should be executed, noting that two juries handed out death sentences.

"A total of 24 people over 10 years heard all of what the defense had to offer, and they all unanimously imposed the death sentence," Surell said.

Buckman wrote a letter to Glendening on Friday asking him to allow the execution to be carried out.

Baltimore County State's Attorney Sandra A. O'Connor is expected to seek a death warrant this week from Judge Robert H. Heller Jr., the Anne Arundel judge who presided over the jury that sentenced Colvin-el to death after a series of appeals in 1992.

The judge's signature on the warrant will set the stage for the state's 84th execution, possibly by mid-June.

Morris is reviewing recent Supreme Court decisions to see if they could open the door to additional court challenges. "We're still looking at our legal options," he said.

Jeanette Ravendhran, a member of the Maryland chapter of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, said her group is working with Colvin-el's lawyers to try to persuade Glendening to spare Colvin-el's life.

The group has purchased the $5,900 newspaper advertisement, collected 500 signatures on petitions and plans to hold a panel discussion on Colvin-el's case at Baltimore City Community College.

She said the panel discussion is scheduled for 6: 30 p.m. Thursday and will include a niece of Colvin-el and a brother-in-law of Tyrone X. Gilliam, executed Nov. 16, 1998.

"I just can't understand how the state could execute someone in a case like this," Ravendhran said.

The efforts occur amid debates nationally and in Maryland about the fairness of the death penalty, with critics arguing that too many defendants are wrongly convicted.

Illinois Gov. George Ryan, a death penalty supporter, halted executions in January because of evidence that 13 men on death row might be innocent.

Richard Dieter, executive director of the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center, said that officials in Nebraska, Indiana, New Hampshire and North Carolina are considering death penalty studies or moratoriums.

State Del. Salima S. Marriott, a West Baltimore Democrat, introduced a bill in this year's legislative session calling for a three-year moratorium on executions. At least a dozen religious and community organizations wrote to Glendening in support of the bill, said Michelle Byrnie, Glendening's press secretary.

The bill died in committee.

Byrnie said the governor has no plans for a moratorium, but will review Colvin-el's case after Heller signs the death warrant.

Glendening also has agreed to a $225,000 study of the death penalty to determine if racial bias is a factor in how it is applied, Byrnie said. Of the 17 Maryland inmates sentenced to death, 13 -- including Colvin-el -- are black.

Death penalty opponents say that Glendening's decision to conduct the study bolsters their arguments for sparing Colvin-el's life.

"The fact that there's a need for a study indicates some concern that there may be a problem, and if there's even a chance of a problem, should the state go through with something as irreversible as a death sentence?" said David Conn, director of the Maryland Jewish Alliance, one of the groups calling for a moratorium.

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