Maryland's premeditated killing of Vernon Evans was stayed by the Maryland Court of Appeals yesterday. The State's use of the power to kill another human should be a time for reflection by Maryland and the nation. Do we want to be a nation of executioners? Do we want to participate in killing people through a very flawed justice system? Do we want to continue to continue the cycle of violence?
There are many questions about the death penalty generally, how it is applied in Maryland and how it was applied in Evans' case. There is no question that the U.S. justice system is imperfect. I know from having been a practicing criminal lawyer that mistakes are made, biases exist and wealth makes a difference in US courts. The questions about the death penalty are so significant that 106 nations, most civilized countries, have abolished it. The United States, Iran and China are the most prolific executioners in the world.
The Maryland court system has a record of false convictions in death penalty cases. For example, in 1993 Kirk Bloodsworth was freed after DNA testing proved his innocence. Yet, he had been convicted twice by Maryland courts. In the past 30 years, 122 inmates were found to be innocent and released from death row.
In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court -- often hostile to death penalty defendants -- overturned the death sentence of Kevin Wiggins in Maryland because of ineffective assistance of counsel. Ineffective counsel in death cases is all too common. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has said: “I have yet to see a death case among the dozens coming to the Supreme Court on eve-of-execution stay application in which the defendant was well represented at trial.” A death sentence seems to have more to do with the defense lawyer than the defendant.
A 2003 study conducted by the University of Maryland found that racial bias impacts capital punishment in Maryland. A defendant is twice as likely to receive the death penalty if the victim is white. And if the defendant is black and the victim is white the odds are even greater. Further, geography matters. In Maryland, Baltimore County is 13 times more likely to institute a death sentence then across the border in Baltimore City.
All of these weaknesses -- racial bias, poor defense lawyering, geographic bias -- have shown themselves in the case of Vernon Evans.
Evans was prosecuted in Baltimore County where the State’s Attorney says he will seek the death penalty in every “death-eligible” crime. In fact, the UMD Study found the office sought death in 99 of 152 death-eligible crimes.
Evans was the “typical” death penalty defendant -- he was African American and the victims were white. The Baltimore County State’s Attorney’s Office ensured no African Americans would be on the jury. The prosecutor used 8 of his 10 peremptory strikes against African Americans, even though they were only 31% of members that the State had an opportunity to strike from the jury.
The jury never heard compelling evidence that showed Evans was not guilty of the actual shooting. In Maryland only the actual shooter is eligible for a death sentence. Yet witnesses -- including the only eyewitness to the crime itself -- never testified at Vernon’s trial or sentencing. Since then, the eyewitness has testified under oath that the shooter was taller than Vernon (who is only 5feet-2inches and nicknamed “Shorty”) and that the shooter’s clothes did not match what Vernon was wearing at the time of the murders. Two other witnesses have corroborated this account and cast doubt on the State’s witnesses. Why didn't they testify? A combination of poor defense lawyering and the failure of the prosecutor to provide defense lawyers with FBI witness reports.
The jury was also not told of mitigating circumstances that would normally be considered in sentencing someone to death. Evans suffered frequent, severe beatings at the hands of his father and was sexually assaulted by a stranger as a young boy. Vernon’s first suicide attempt came at the age of ten. His family sought no treatment for him, and he turned to alcohol and drugs in his early teens. The jury was not told this critical information and no court ever reviewed the performance of his counsel at sentencing.
And, the jury was misled to believe that Evans might be released on parole when in fact he was facing a sentence of life with no possibility of parole. Jurors in Evans case have said they would have sentenced him to life if they had the option. Today, Maryland jurors do have that choice.
The death penalty is akin to being struck by lightening in the criminal justice system. The odds increase based on the color of the victim, the color of the accused, geography and most importantly the quality of legal representation. But only 2% of known murderers are sentenced to death. Some of the most heinous murders do not result in death sentences, while less heinous crimes are punished by death. The National Law Journal concluded that capital trials are “more like a random flip of the coin than a delicate balancing of scales” of justice.
On December 2, 2005, the United States carried out its 1,000th execution since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976 when Kenneth Boyd was killed in North Carolina. Boyd's lawyer, Thomas Maher, after watching the execution, said, “This 1,000th execution is a milestone. It's a milestone we should all be ashamed of.” The cycle for violence brutalizes all of us, deadens our sensitivity to the precious nature of every single human life. Rather than pandering to the lust for revenge let us hope that Vernon Evans breaks the cycle and stops further killing by Maryland and throughout the United States.
Kevin Zeese is a candidate for the US Senate in Maryland (www.KevinZeese.com).
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the Editor of The American Conservative, former Neocon Scott