An Anne Arundel Circuit judge signed a death warrant yesterday for Eugene Colvin-el, setting the stage for a June execution in a case that has become a rallying point for death penalty opponents.
Judge Robert H. Heller Jr.'s signature on the warrant means that Colvin-el would be executed the week of June 12 unless he succeeds with a last-ditch appeal or the governor grants him clemency.
The Colvin-el case has prompted renewed calls from death penalty opponents for Gov. Parris N. Glendening to impose a moratorium on all executions.
"This should be the case that makes the governor say, we've got a problem here," said Virginia Harabin, Maryland coordinator of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty.
Glendening, who has privately expressed reservations about Colvin-el's case, was under pressure in the recent legislative session to impose a moratorium.
A bill calling for a three-year moratorium was proposed out of concerns about the disproportionate number of blacks on Maryland's death row -- 12 inmates out of 17.
The bill failed, but Glendening authorized funding for a $225,000 death penalty study.
Glendening spokesman Michael Morrill said the governor doesn't see a need for a moratorium but will begin reviewing Colvin-el's case once his lawyers file a clemency petition.
Glendening has refused clemency petitions from two other defendants, Tyrone Gilliam and Flint Gregory Hunt.
Morrill said that as part of his review, Glendening will read letters written by the defendant, his family and the victim's family, and examine the court record in the case.
Colvin-el, 55, was convicted in the robbery and murder Sept. 9, 1980, of Lena S. Buckman of Cocoa Beach, Fla., who had traveled to Pikesville to spend the Jewish holidays with her daughter.
Colvin-el, who lived in Baltimore, had a record that included 11 burglary convictions. He 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 daughter's house.
About a week after the murder, he pawned two watches stolen from the house, according to court testimony.
Colvin-el, who is black, was convicted and sentenced to death in 1981 by an all-white jury after his lawyer, who has since died, declined to call witnesses.
On appeal, a new sentencing hearing was ordered. In 1992, a racially mixed jury also sentenced him to death.
A federal judge vacated Colvin-el's sentence in 1998, only to be reversed by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in June.
Colvin-el's relatives say that none of the evidence used to convict him proves conclusively that he entered the home where Buckman was stabbed 28 times.
"How can they execute a man for murder when they can't prove he even entered the house?" said Norma Brooks-McRoy, Colvin-el's niece.
She vowed yesterday to do everything possible to save her uncle's life.
But Heller's decision brought expressions of guarded relief from Buckman's family.
Marjorie Surell, who heard two juries sentence Colvin-el to death for her mother's murder, said she remains convinced of his guilt.
"Finally, finally it's almost over," Surell said. "We've been waiting almost 20 years, and it's almost over."
The case comes amid a national debate on the fairness of the death penalty, with critics arguing that too many death row inmates have been wrongly convicted.
Illinois Gov. George Ryan, a death penalty supporter, halted executions in his state 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 four other states have considered either death penalty studies or moratoriums.
Colvin-el's lawyers said that in addition to the clemency petition, they plan an appeal to the state's highest court.
They will file papers with the Court of Appeals as early as Monday to appeal a ruling issued yesterday by Heller before he signed the death warrant.
Heller, who presided over the jury that sentenced Colvin-el in 1992, denied Colvin-el's claims that the death sentence was illegal because it failed to meet state and federal requirements that it be uniformly applied.
John H. Morris Jr., one of Colvin-el's lawyers, said that he will argue that Maryland's death penalty is disproportionately applied to black defendants and to cases involving white victims, such as Buckman.
"Whatever happens in this case, it's something we're all responsible for, so we want to make sure the process we follow is as fair as possible," Morris said.
Last night, the Baltimore Campaign to End the Death Penalty held a rally to call for a moratorium against executions, particularly in the case of Colvin-el.
During the forum at Baltimore City Community College on Lib^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^erty Heights Avenue -- in which the death penalty was denounced by City Councilman Norman A. Handy Sr. as historically racist and arbitrary -- Colvin-el's niece asked that he be given a new trial.
"OK, he's a career burglar, he's admitted that," Brooks-McRoy said. "But is that enough to execute him for murder?"
Death penalty opponents also plan a demonstration tomorrow at the University of Maryland, with a 1 p.m. march from the campus to Glendening's private home in College Park.
Colvin-el would be the 84th person executed in Maryland and the fourth since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.
Sun staff writers Rafael Alvarez and Thomas W. Waldron contributed to this article.