For a wrongly sentenced man, it’s a matter of life and death

I don’t think anyone would argue that the race of a defendant is not supposed to influence their punishment – but a study done in Philadelphia showed murders by blacks are treated more severely and deserving of the death penalty, with the defendant’s race being comparable to other legitimate aggravating factors such as torture or a murder with multiple stab wounds.

As I speak, Eugene Colvin-El sits on death row in Maryland, waiting for the Supreme Court to render a decision on his final appeal. If it decides against Eugene’s appeal, Gov. Parris N. Glendening will have two months to sign the order that will authorize the execution of Colvin-El.

Colvin-El’s case represents the utter and gross injustice that the criminal justice system all too often perpetrates. If Colvin-El is executed, we will be losing an innocent man whose only crime was that he was poor and that he was black. Furthermore, Colvin-El’s execution will be contributing to the ever-escalating destruction of the principles on which this nation is founded.

I think that a logical way of elucidating the injustice that has befallen Eugene is to steep an examination of his case in a discussion of the Constitution – what we, as a nation, are based on. We are told to place our faith in the Constitution and Bill of Rights as living and working documents. The Bill of Rights protects our individual rights. In protecting our individual rights, the Bill of Rights thereby acts in ensuring our natural rights – life, liberty and property. Going on these premises, then, it’s logical to assume that when the rights we are guaranteed under the Constitution are violated, so is our access to these natural rights. When these natural rights become inaccessible, then I ask you – what becomes of the Constitution and our lives as such?

The Fifth and 14th amendments provide that the national and state governments, respectively, shall not arbitrarily deny any person his life, liberty or property without the due process of the law. The idea of due process has always connoted adherence to proper procedures of action established in law, and at times the Supreme Court has additionally interpreted the term as requiring the reasonableness of government actions and limits on the scope of those actions.

It’s in light of these ideas that I ask you to consider the case of Colvin-El. In January 1980, Colvin-El was arrested and charged with the murder of Lena Buchman – an 82-year-old white woman who was stabbed to death during a break-in and robbery. In August 1981, Colvin-El was convicted of the first-degree murder of Buchman and sentenced to death by the state of Maryland.

Colvin-El was assigned an attorney that had no significant criminal trial experience. His representation at trial was completely inadequate. The attorney failed to investigate questionable aspects of the state’s case against Colvin-El. He also failed to present important factual material that might have proven Colvin-El innocent. His attorney didn’t investigate the claims of witnesses that two young men not matching Eugene’s description were seen riding bikes in the neighborhood where the murder occurred, on the day of the crime. Furthermore, the attorney’s appeals on Colvin-El’s behalf never addressed the fundamental problems in Colvin-El’s case and trial. Is this due process?

When Colvin-El asked the court to remove his attorney, he was denied. Colvin-El was further denied his constitutional right to represent himself. When he took this matter to the Maryland Court of Appeals, a judge acknowledged that Colvin-El’s constitutional rights had been violated, but the majority on the court still decided against Colvin-El’s claim. Is this due process?

In Colvin-El’s case, the jury never heard that the alleged point of entry into the home where the murder occurred was a door that opened no more than four inches and that another home in the neighborhood was robbed on the same day and around the same time. The jury never heard that shortly before the killing, neighbors had seen several people who did not belong in the neighborhood, on the block and that a police investigation revealed that witnesses claimed to see two young men casing homes in the neighborhood one day after the murder.

The injustice continues. In 1986, a state court ruled that Colvin-El received poor representation at trial and lifted the death sentence – but kept his conviction in place. On a 1988 review of that decision, a Maryland Appeals Court thought that Colvin-El’s lawyer had done such a poor job that they advised the lower court to reconsider the first-degree murder charge – but again, the court did not grant Colvin-El the new trial that he deserved. This happened despite the fact that two judges on that court recommended a new trial for Colvin-El. While Colvin-El’s death sentence was lifted, his conviction remained in place. When he went before a jury to be re-sentenced the jury was instructed of his conviction and, with little surprise, reinstated his sentence. Is this due process?

Maryland’s death penalty statute states that in order to be given the death penalty, the defendant can’t just be connected to the crime, but must be actually be the principal in the murder act, meaning that they must be the actual assailant that kills the person. Now let’s look at Colvin-El’s case. There was no confession from Colvin-El or a co-defendant, there was no evidence connecting Colvin-El to the actual killing, and there was no testimony of an eyewitness to the killing. In fact, Colvin-El is the only person who had been sentenced to death in Maryland solely upon circumstantial evidence.

Circumstantial evidence is sending an innocent man to his death. Circumstantial evidence means that I could have stumbled upon the murder scene and, out of curiosity, touched some broken glass, and I would be implicated as the murderer. The ability of circumstantial evidence to end the life of this man, to deprive him of his right to life and liberty, is unjust. Colvin-El was denied due process. He was never given a chance at a fair trial, and on this basis and numerous others, the state of Maryland has no right to take his life.

Colvin-El’s case is a rather accurate example of a biased criminal justice system. There is hope however. I say this in light of a recent Washington Post article entitled, A Death Row Case that Begs Scrutiny, and a press conference scheduled for April 5, when Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. will introduce a bill that calls for a seven-year national moratorium on the death penalty. What must be remembered is that only action results in hope. We are living in an age when many people and institutions are eager to place blame and point fingers, and very few are willing to look between the lines to figure out what went wrong. We feel comfortable insulating ourselves with images and symbols of freedom and justice, but we often fail in truly functioning and living by these principles.

The American coins we gladly exchange amongst ourselves have the word liberty printed on them in small letters. There is no such thing as liberty, however, if it doesn’t exist for each and every person, including Colvin-El. His case is an example of why the idea of liberty idea doesn’t make a difference – it doesn’t live, or breathe or tread the face of this country – as long as it remains inactivated, existing only as an engravement on the face of a coin.

Nevertheless, Colvin-El sits and waits, and automatically we are implicated in an integral role in this – as Eugene’s voice, as the voice of justice. We are graced with mouths and hands and feet and hearts, and it’s our duty to rise to the occasion so that we too can say, in the words of a Montgomery, Ala., woman who, in the struggle for racial equality, decided not to ride the segregated buses. Upon being asked about her weariness, she replied, My feets is tired but my soul is at rest.

-The writer is a senior majoring in history.

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