Victim's family rejects clemency; They remember life of mother as others rally to save her killer

For 20 years, William Buckman and Marjorie Surell have been haunted by how their mother spent the last moments of her life.

Lena Buckman was stabbed to death in September 1980, about an hour after she arrived at Surell's Pikesville home to celebrate the Jewish High Holy Days.


As activists organize rallies to stop Eugene Colvin-el from being executed for the murder, Buckman and Surell say that their mother's life -- and death -- must be remembered.

"The most painful thing is thinking about what the last moments of her life were like," said Buckman, 70, of Northbrook, Ill. "She didn't deserve to die like that. No one does."


Lena Buckman, a mother of two and grandmother of six, was attacked with a kitchen knife on her 82nd birthday and stabbed 28 times in the neck, head and hands, according to testimony.

Surell, a widow with eight grandchildren, has since moved to Baltimore from the house on the 6800 block of Cherokee Drive where the slaying occurred.

But the murder has left its scars, making her more security-conscious and more aware of how vulnerable she and her family remain.

If Surell calls one of her three children and they don't answer the telephone, it can send her into a panic.

"I worry I'll find them in a pool of blood the way I found my mother," said Surell, 75.

Buckman reacted in a similar way, installing a security system in his home in Northbrook, outside Chicago, a short time after the killing.

"You always think something like that happens to someone else, not to you, so when it does, it changes your whole perspective," he said.

Buckman, a retired advertising executive, said he remains preoccupied with how much his mother suffered before she died.


Long wait for justice

A year after the slaying, he copied his mother's autopsy report, marked the location of each stab wound on a diagram of a body, showed the sketch to his physician and asked whether his mother would have felt the pain of each wound.

Buckman's doctor could say only that the woman probably passed out when the carotid artery in her neck was severed and that the extent of her suffering depended on whether the artery was severed early in the attack.

"To this day, I don't know how much she suffered. That's really upsetting," said Buckman, a retired advertising executive.

Both Buckman and Surell say 20 years is long enough to wait for justice.

They want the sentence carried out.


"My mother was a loving, caring, giving person, and he robbed us of her," said Surell.

Lena Buckman was born in Philadelphia in 1898 and moved to Baltimore in 1904. She married Samuel Buckman in 1922.

They settled in Forest Park and raised their two children on his salary as a railway postal clerk.

She knitted, crocheted and worked as a volunteer for the American Red Cross.

The couple moved to Cocoa Beach, Fla., in 1973. Samuel Buckman died in 1979.

Both of Lena Buckman's children have homes decorated with stuffed animals that she knitted for her grandchildren and with blankets and coverlets she crocheted for them.


In the first-floor hallway of William Buckman's Illinois home, an embroidery pattern and a needlepoint pattern are framed on opposite walls. Nearby is a box in which she used to plant flowers.

"We consider this her corner," said Buckman's wife, Norma Buckman, giving a reporter a brief tour of the house.

Buckman said his mother's murder became a demarcation line in his family's history, with events dated as happening either before or after the crime.

His son David, then 19, was so distraught that he dropped out of his freshman class at Indiana University.

His daughter Karla, then a 14-year-old high school freshman, was no longer allowed to be home alone. For months after the killing, she often asked to be excused from class, went into a stairwell in the school and cried.

"It was like it was the end of innocence for us as a family," said Norma Buckman.


Buckman and Surell are angry about statements made by those campaigning to save Colvin-el, whose execution is scheduled for the week of June 12.

None of the activists or celebrities who have added their names to petitions seeking a reprieve -- such as actress Susan Sarandon -- was affected by the slaying and none seems familiar with the details of the case, they say.

"Some of what they're saying is just outright lies," Buckman said.

Colvin-el was convicted by an Anne Arundel County Circuit Court jury in 1981 after his fingerprint was found on a piece of glass broken from a door that police say he used to enter the home.

Jurors also heard evidence showing that eight days after the slaying, Colvin-el pawned two watches stolen from the home.

Death penalty opponents emphasize that the fingerprint was on a glass shard found outside the house.


They have tried to muster support in newspaper advertisements and fliers saying that there is only "circumstantial evidence" and that there is "no direct evidence tying him to the crime."

That infuriates Surell and Buckman, who sat through Colvin-el's trial in 1981 and a second sentencing ordered in 1992 and have closely followed the appeals process.

"How did he get the watches? He's never explained that," said Buckman.

Buckman and Surell said they realize that there are defendants wrongly convicted of murder on death rows across the country.

But Colvin-el is not one of them, they said.

"Any reasonable person who sat through those hearings the way we did and heard all the evidence that both juries heard would know there isn't one iota of doubt that this guy is guilty," Buckman said.


In Buckman's home state of Illinois, Gov. George Ryan, a death penalty supporter, halted executions last January because of evidence that 13 men on death row might be innocent.

Governor to review case

In Maryland, Del. Salima S. Marriott, a West Baltimore Democrat, proposed a moratorium on executions during this year's General Assembly session, but the bill failed to make it out of a House committee.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening will review Colvin-el's case after a clemency petition is filed, a spokesman said.

That review will include examining court records and reading any letters written by the defendant or his relatives, as well as letters from the victim's relatives, according to Glendening spokesman Michael Morrill.

Glendening refused clemency petitions from Flint Gregory Hunt in 1997 and Tyrone Gilliam in 1998, and both were executed.


But Surell and Buckman say they are concerned that Glendening agreed to commit $225,000 to a study to determine whether the death penalty unfairly targets minority defendants.

Colvin-el is one of 12 African-Americans among the 17 inmates on Maryland's death row.

Race had nothing to do with the death sentences imposed by two juries, Lena Buckman's children say.

The first jury that sentenced him was all-white, but the second was racially mixed.

Surell and Buckman have both written impassioned letters asking Glendening not to grant Colvin-el clemency.

In his letter, Buckman writes that he remains haunted by imagining his mother's final moments, and says of Colvin-el:


"He deserves as much mercy as he showed to my mother."