Sarah Pilisz, a young college student from northeastern Pennsylvania, began her correspondence with death row inmate and convicted killer Vernon Lee Evans Jr. a little more than a year ago as something of a community service project.
"I originally thought, 'This will be awesome. It's a great way to serve God by serving other people. It will be good for me to do that for him, to help him,'" the 21-year-old Mount St. Mary's University student said recently.
But as the pair continued to swap letters - Pilisz from her dorm room amid the hills of Western Maryland and Evans from a cell in a maximum-security prison in downtown Baltimore - the college senior was surprised to find that the inmate became as much, if not more, of a comfort to her than she was to him.
"He offers wonderful, perfect advice," Pilisz said. "So he was serving God by serving me. It ended up being really reciprocal."
Students and faculty at Mount St. Mary's say that Evans, 56, who is scheduled to be executed next week for the 1983 contract killings of two Pikesville motel clerks, has become a class participant and even a mentor and teacher to a small group of students, even while incarcerated on death row and despite never having set foot on the Emmitsburg campus.
Philosophy professor Trudy Conway characterized Evans as a "participating member of our campus" and credits him with being a positive force in the moral development of young people. Students describe him as a friend, an inspiration and an adviser, offering an uncommon perspective on everything from the importance of their education to a never-dimming faith in the Orioles.
And the Rev. Richard B. Hilgartner, a campus chaplain, said Evans has had such a profound influence on the college that "to terminate his life undoes a lot of the lessons we've taught on campus about compassion and redemption and conversion."
All have lent their voices to the effort to stop Evans' execution, which could occur as soon as Monday.
Evans was sentenced to death in the shootings of David Scott Piechowicz and his sister-in-law, Susan Kennedy, who were gunned down in April 1983 with a MAC-11 machine pistol in the lobby of the Warren House Motel. Another death row inmate, drug kingpin Anthony Grandison, also was sentenced to death in the case, convicted of offering Evans $9,000 to kill two witnesses scheduled to testify against him.
Evans' attorneys are fighting the scheduled execution on many fronts. They have legal challenges pending with the Maryland Court of Appeals, as well as several requests for review before the U.S. Supreme Court. The attorneys plan to file appeals today with the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals and the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, asking the courts to overturn rulings this week from federal and state judges who rejected Evans' challenges to the state's lethal injection procedure. And the defense has submitted to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. a clemency petition and an accompanying documentary-style video.
Pilisz and Conway appear on that video.
The relationship between Evans and Mount St. Mary's, which describes itself as the nation's oldest independent Catholic college, began in fall 2004 when Conway met one of Evans' sisters in Chicago at a national convention of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. Gwendolyn Bates, a minister, mentioned that her brother was on Maryland's death row and might benefit from receiving mail from the professor and her students.
Conway began writing Evans immediately. When about 30 students signed up for her Perspectives on the Death Penalty class last spring, the course material became an obvious topic between the professor and the prisoner.
Soon, Conway was mailing Evans copies of the reading materials she assigned her students - dense writings that focused on the philosophical, sociological, political and ethical arguments, both for and against the death penalty. Just as quickly, Evans returned what the professor characterized as "essays of reflection" on the readings - many of which she read in her class.
"He was living some of the issues being addressed in the texts," Conway said. "Sometimes it was like he was a student, and sometimes he was a teacher because he discloses things that we don't have any knowledge of."
When Evans requested more books from the university's curriculum, other Mount St. Mary's faculty members answered the call, sending volumes about history, religion and morality.
"He just became a voracious reader. He stays up all night reading," Conway said. "I guess he was getting the education he never had."
And still, the letters to the students continued.
Many of the dozen or so students and staff who have maintained a correspondence with Evans or visited him in prison say they believe his assertion that he was involved in the Warren House killings but did not pull the trigger. Others say that even if he did, their religious beliefs are so strong that they believe in redemption and still would not advocate executing him.
Like her friends, Jamie Bergin, 21, was unsure of what to expect from Evans. She says she didn't want to "use him for information about his life." So she started out by sending a Christmas card, writing a note similar to those that she sent to friends.
But to Bergin's amazement, there seemed to be no limit to the subjects that she, a Hampden native, and Evans, born and raised in West Baltimore, discussed.
"We write about what we've seen - our frustrations with teen pregnancy, drug use and other problems in the neighborhoods where we grew up. Things that we both can relate to," she said. "He even writes about the Orioles. He says he's pessimistic about the Orioles but he still has faith."
Laura Robinson, 21, of Springfield, Va., has written Evans about the mentoring program through which she, Bergin and other college women work with middle school girls. "He believes that mentors are such powerful influences," Robinson said. "And he's kind of been our mentor, so we know about that."
Evans' influence on Pilisz, from Scranton, Pa., has been so profound that after years of not knowing what to do with her life, she now intends to seek a teaching job in an inner-city school after graduation. "Knowing Vernon and some of the things that have happened in his life has inspired me to work with kids to keep them from getting into things like that," she said.
Reflecting on the impact that Evans has had on her students, Conway remembered a prayer that he told her he repeats often - that God would grant him a period of time when he would know what it means to be a good man.
"Being in prison, and the period of reflection that that has afforded him, he has figured out a way to be the person he wanted to be," Conway said softly. "I told him that I thought in many ways his prayer has now been answered."