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Unusual clemency request aims to display for Ehrlich death row inmate's humanity


A sister talks about beatings he endured as a child. Another relative says he was sexually abused and tried to commit suicide by the age of 10. A college professor talks about the man's "moral insight." His mother tearfully pleads for mercy.

Then, in a video designed to persuade Maryland's governor to grant him clemency, death row inmate Vernon Lee Evans Jr. begins to talk.

"Governor Ehrlich," Evans says, "today I have the opportunity to speak to you."

Evans goes on to say that though the changes he has made won't bring back the victims in his case, "in my mind getting my life turned around was the only means I had to show how sorry I was in being a part in taking of another human life."

The appeal, on DVD, was sent to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. yesterday, Evans' lawyers said.

"Please hear my plea," Evans' mother, Frances Evans, tearfully says on the video. "Don't execute my son."

The 17 1/2 -minute, documentary-style video, which is also on a Web site tracking Evans' case, is part of the defense team's effort to stop the 56-year-old inmate's execution, scheduled for next week. Yesterday, a Baltimore circuit judge denied a request for a temporary delay of the execution. Closing arguments in a federal lawsuit challenging Maryland's lethal injection procedures are scheduled for this morning.

The DVD, said A. Stephen Hut Jr., one of Evans' lawyers, is "more effective" than the printed version of the clemency request submitted to Ehrlich on Monday. "It more directly and graphically conveys the effect of his life on his family ... and the abuse and neglect in his childhood," Hut said.

But last night, Baltimore County Deputy State's Attorney Stephen Bailey called the video "a blatant attempt to manipulate Governor Ehrlich based on emotion rather than facts or sound judgment."

"I respect and appreciate principled opposition to capital punishment," he said. "But I'm appalled at the level to which Vernon Evans' lawyers would stoop in submitting this video."

Bailey said that it is "sadly ironic" that Evans' defense team would submit the video after more than two decades of appeals -- "when they know there are no surviving relatives of [the victims] who could submit a similar video."

Evans was convicted in the 1983 contract killings of two Pikesville motel clerks, David Scott Piechowicz and Susan Kennedy. The shootings were ordered and paid for by a drug kingpin, Anthony Grandison, who also is on death row.

The governor's legal office is reviewing the written petition for clemency that was filed Monday. Jervis S. Finney, the governor's counsel, said that he was told Monday that they would receive the video yesterday, but as of 5 p.m., he said, the office had not received it. It would be the first time that a video has been submitted to Ehrlich as part of a clemency request, Finney said.

Finney said he planned to watch the DVD but would not say whether Ehrlich would view it.

Normally, the office advises the governor on clemency requests, because the paperwork is voluminous, Finney said. The paper petition filed Monday was 51 pages and was sent along with hundreds of pages of legal documents and reports.

"It's the technology era. People just don't read everything anymore," Julie S. Dietrich, one of Evans' lawyers, said. "So we wanted a video to accompany our [clemency] petition."

Evans' defense team also has set up a Web site, where news releases and updates on their legal challenges are posted. Evans himself contributes to a blog on another site.

Gary E. Proctor, a capital defense attorney, said the use of a documentary video in a clemency petition is "not a first in the country, but it's certainly a rarity and still a novel approach."

"I think it's uncategorically a good idea," said Proctor, who assisted with Wesley Eugene Baker's legal appeals and clemency request before Baker was executed in December, and is currently representing Grandison and Heath William Burch, another death row inmate. "The problem with clemency -- and I've written a few of these petitions -- is that you're always trying to represent the human being whose fate rests with the governor. You're trying to convey their humanity, and a video should be very effective at accomplishing that."

On the video, three of Evans' sisters, two of his sons, one of his daughters, his father and mother speak about his life -- what he endured as a child, what he means to them and how he's changed.

Evans' lawyers say his earlier defense team never brought up evidence of his abusive upbringing at sentencing. And they say jurors didn't hear the testimony of the only eyewitness to the murders -- a jewelry store clerk who worked in the motel -- that the lawyers contend proves that Evans was not the gunman. She testified at Evans' post-conviction hearing in 1996 that the shooter was about 5 feet 7 inches to 5 feet 8 inches tall and left-handed. Evans, whose nickname is "Shorty," is 5 feet, 2 inches tall and right-handed.

The DVD includes a portion of surveillance video taken at the jewelry store where the clerk witnessed the 1983 shootings through a store window. The footage shows her flinching, apparently at the sound of gunfire, before hurriedly closing up the jewelry shop.

Evans does not deny that he was involved in the shootings, but has said that he was not the gunman.

A professor at Mount St. Mary's University and a student at the school also are interviewed on the video. "I think he will grow and continue to be a positive force in young people's lives," says the professor, Gertrude Conway, who talks about Evans' frankness with students about the problems associated with drug and alcohol abuse.

The narrator says that Evans, who has seven children and 13 grandchildren, and his family frequently pray for the families of the victims. And, printed on one screen, Evans is quoted as saying, "Getting my life turned around was also the means I had to show how sorry I am. ... I will do all I can to continue to make a difference, wherever I am."

The video ends with Gwendolyn Bates, one of Evans' sisters, begging the governor for mercy: "We are pleading from our hearts to yours to please have mercy on my brother."

laura.barnhardt@baltsun.com jennifer.mcmenamin@ baltsun.com

A link to the Vernon Lee Evans Jr. Web site that contains the video can be found at baltimoresun.com/evans.

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