Saved from death for a bleak future


EUGENE Colvin-el will never visit the zoo in Druid Hill Park, never go to an Orioles game, never munch on a coddie, never hop in the car to run an errand or stroll down the street with his girlfriend.

He faces an existence that is a modern-day equivalent of Dante's Inferno -- a lifetime in prison.

To some, it is a fate worse than death.

Colvin-el will spend the rest of his days in a depressingly sparse, narrow cell at a maximum-security prison in Jessup -- a cell far smaller than the most antiquated cages at the Baltimore Zoo.

He must be on guard at all times in such dangerous surroundings.

His every movement will be supervised by guards. He must eat whatever food is prepared for Jessup's prison population.

He has been excluded forever from the rest of society.

That is the meaning of Gov. Parris N. Glendening's life-without-parole commutation sentence. Colvin-el escaped the death penalty, but his punishment will be meted out -- behind thick walls --until he draws his last breath.

Yet this is exactly what Colvin-el deserved. He did not warrant public execution.

There's little doubt he was involved in the Pikesville break-in and murder of 82-year-old Lena Buckman in 1980. But there's no conclusive proof -- beyond a shadow of a doubt -- that Colvin-el plunged a knife into her.

There was no confession, no eyewitness testimony, no forensic evidence inside the house. It was all circumstantial.

That's not good enough in a death-penalty case. You've got to be sure of a defendant's guilt totally and completely. Because if you goof, there's no chance to make amends.

As the governor put it, "The death penalty is final and irreversible."

That's why Illinois Gov. George Ryan, a conservative Republican, has put a hold on executions because so many death-row inmates were found to be innocent of the murders they were supposed to have committed.

That's why Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore, an even more conservative Republican, delayed an execution until DNA tests determine if a death-row inmate is innocent as he claimed.

And that's why Texas Gov. George W. Bush, running hard for president, backed down from his death-to-murderers position in another case -- for 30 days at least -- until he gets the DNA results.

It's clear Mr. Glendening agonized over the Colvin-el case. He may have to do the same thing in another death-row case this November.

He wasn't convinced, absolutely and positively, that Colvin-el had been the principal killer -- the only way the convict could be put to death under Maryland law.

Politics surely played a role -- however minor -- in Mr. Glendening's decision.

It would be awkward for Democrat Glendening to come out looking harsher than Republican Bush, the country's foremost gubernatorial advocate of the "fry 'em fast" approach. Texas leads the nation, by far, in public executions.

More in line with Democratic candidate Al Gore's approach was Mr. Glendening's carefully researched conclusion that the case against Colvin-el lacked overwhelming, persuasive evidence of guilt as the primary murderer.

If Mr. Gore gets into the White House -- a prospect that isn't as bright as it was a few months ago -- Mr. Glendening's bid for a Cabinet post could be enhanced by his studious and well-reasoned leniency toward Colvin-el.

The blood-lust expressed by the children of Lena Buckman won't bring their mother back. Their anguish, though, is palpable and heart-wrenching.

Yet Colvin-el wasn't exonerated. Far from it. He's being punished harshly for his role -- whatever it may have been -- in this death.

Under dictatorships and other oppressive regimes, death sentences are meted out indiscriminately, for political purposes, to punish enemies and to keep the citizenry in line.

But in a democracy, the value of life is placed on a far loftier plateau. Before we take a life through public execution, we must have removed all doubts of innocence.

All doubts.

That's a high standard to achieve. It's the right standard, though, if a society is to call itself civilized.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial page editor.

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