Gov. Parris N. Glendening spared convicted murderer Eugene Colvin-el yesterday from his scheduled execution next week after concluding that the case against him was not certain enough to warrant the death penalty.
Glendening, a death penalty supporter who in his first term allowed two executions, commuted Colvin-el's sentence to life in prison with no possibility of parole.
"I came to the conclusion that he was almost certainly guilty of this horrible crime, but 'almost certainly' is not strong enough," the visibly emotional governor said yesterday in Annapolis.
Colvin-el, 55, was convicted in the 1980 stabbing death of Lena Buckman, an 82-year-old Florida woman who was visiting her daughter in Pikesville for the Jewish High Holy Days.
Jose Anderson, a lawyer for Colvin-el, said his client learned of Glendening's decision from a television news account.
"Thank God for the governor's gracious act of mercy. He didn't have to do it, and I am personally humbled by it," said Anderson, a University of Baltimore law professor.
Executions have become almost commonplace in some states, such as Virginia and Texas, but Colvin-el would have been only the fourth person to be put to death in Maryland since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976.
Glendening's decision came after several religious and political leaders, including three congressmen and the state's three Catholic bishops, called for clemency for Colvin-el.
Around the country, the death penalty is coming under increasing scrutiny as questions are raised about the guilt of some on death rows and about the fairness of how capital punishment is applied. Illinois Gov. George Ryan, a Republican supporter of the death penalty, has halted all executions while that state's death penalty procedures are examined.
While granting clemency to Colvin-el, Glendening sidestepped calls for a death penalty moratorium in Maryland, saying he remains a supporter of capital punishment.
Many of those calling for clemency for Colvin-el said the prosecution's case - which was built on circumstantial evidence - was too weak to justify an execution.
Colvin-el was convicted after jurors heard evidence that his fingerprint was found on a piece of glass broken from a basement door where police say he entered the house.
Evidence also showed that he pawned two watches stolen from the home. Two juries had sentenced Colvin-el to death.
Glendening declined to discuss details of the case or give insight into why he concluded the case was not strong enough to warrant an execution.
"My responsibility here is not as another judge or as another jury," he said. "It's to look at the totality of the case."
The governor's decision angered relatives of the victim.
Colvin-el "butchered my mother, and he's not going to die - because of political pressure and mob rule," said William Buckman, the victim's 70-year-old son, who had planned to watch the execution and had flown from his home in Illinois to press for Colvin-el's death.
Many Maryland legislators have called for a moratorium on the death penalty, saying it is too often imposed on African-Americans. Of the 18 inmates on death row in the state, 12 are black, including Colvin-el.
And of the 24 victims ruled to have died at the hands of those on death row, 17 were white, including Buckman.
Glendening said yesterday that race was not a factor in his decision.
"As I reviewed this case, I did not see a constitutional process or system issues," he said. "I did not see issues of racial discrimination."
Glendening's commutation order elated Colvin-el's sister and niece, who embraced and wept when they shared the news after a briefing at the University of Baltimore Law School.
"Yes! Thank you, Lord. Thank you, Jesus," niece Norma Brooks-McRoy shouted when she was told.
She praised Glendening for his courage, then walked with reporters from a law school conference room to her van, where she told her waiting mother, who had been too nervous to attend the briefing.
"I'm just so happy. Words can't explain how I feel right now," said NormaColvin, 63, Colvin-el's sister.
Cardinal William H. Keeler, who had urged Glendening to commute Colvin-El's sentence and to eliminate the death penalty, said he welcomed the governor's action. "I know he that thought long and hard about it," Keeler said. "It is a decision for the sake of sparing human life, and that we appreciate very much."
Virginia Hariban, a spokeswoman for the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, applauded the decision to spare Colvin-el, but sharply criticized Glendening for consigning him to life in prison.
"The fact is the state did not have enough evidence to prove that Eugene Colvin-el committed this crime," Hariban said.
Reaction from Glendening's fellow Democrats was mixed.
"I think it's a mistake. The governor's decision undermines the jury system," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. "I just have this terrible empathy for the children and grandchildren of the victim."
U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Democrat from Baltimore, also expressed concern for the victim's family, but said the governor had done the right thing in light of what Cummings called a weak case.
"This does send a continuing message that seems to be slowly rippling across the country - that we need to take a careful look at this," Cummings said.
In the two other death penalty cases to reach his desk, Glendening declined to halt the 1998 execution of Tyrone Gilliam or the 1997 execution of Flint Gregory Hunt.
The last governor to commute a death sentence was Gov. Harry R. Hughes, who commuted the death sentence of Doris Ann Foster in 1987.
Glendening indicated he had come to his decision earlier in the week, but spent Tuesday night and some of yesterday morning reviewing the case a final time.
He consulted with a small circle of aides and outside advisers. Mostly, he said, he relied on the voluminous court record, which aides displayed on a table for yesterday's announcement.
The governor's aides called Colvin-el's lawyer, the Baltimore County state's attorney's office and Buckman's relatives shortly before the public announcement.
An Anne Arundel County judge signed Colvin-el's death warrant last month and ordered the execution to take place next week.
Glendening's decision was announced just a few hours after the state's highest court issued a one-sentence order rejecting Colvin-el's request for a stay. The stay would have postponed the execution so that additional legal arguments could be raised.
The 5-2 ruling was accompanied by a stinging dissent by Judge John Eldridge, who said the court should prevent the execution because there was insufficient evidence to prove that Colvin-el committed the murder - a requirement in death penalty cases.
"I continue to believe that the evidence was not sufficient to establish, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Colvin-el was the principal in the first degree," Eldridge said. Chief Judge Robert M. Bell joined in the dissent.
Sun staff writer John Rivera contributed to this article.