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USA: Death penalty / Legal concern - Eugene Sherman Colvin-El

, Index number: AMR 51/078/2000

Eugene Colvin-El is scheduled to be executed in Maryland within a five-day period beginning on 12 June 2000 (the exact time will be set by prison officials). He was sentenced to death in 1981 for the murder of 82-year-old Lena Buchman on 9 September 1980.

PUBLIC AI Index: AMR 51/78/00
EXTRA 50/00 Death penalty / Legal concern 23 May 2000
USA (Maryland)Eugene Sherman Colvin-El, black, aged 55
Eugene Colvin-El is scheduled to be executed in Maryland within a five-day
period beginning on 12 June 2000 (the exact time will be set by prison officials).
He was sentenced to death in 1981 for the murder of 82-year-old Lena Buchman
on 9 September 1980.
International safeguards require that capital defendants receive “adequate
legal representation at all stages of proceedings” and state that “capital
punishment may be imposed only when the guilt of the person charged is based
upon clear and convincing evidence leaving no room for an alternative
explanation of the facts.” In the case of Colvin-El, who has consistently
maintained that he did not kill Lena Buchman, these minimum standards have
not been met.
Eugene Colvin-El was convicted of capital murder on the basis of limited
circumstantial evidence. Lena Buchman was killed in her daughter’s house,
repeatedly stabbed with a kitchen knife. Some 17 items of jewellery were missing
from the home. Four months later, Colvin-El was arrested for the murder after
his fingerprints were found to match those on a pile of broken glass from,
and found outside, the back door of the house. He was also found to have pawned,
eight days after the crime, two watches, at least one of which had been among
the stolen items. However, there was no eyewitness testimony, incriminating
statements, fingerprints or other forensic evidence placing him inside the
house and showing beyond reasonable doubt that he was the actual perpetrator
of the murder.
Eugene Colvin-El’s trial lawyer, who had no experience in capital cases, failed
to present evidence supporting his client’s claim of innocence. His failure
left the jury unaware that the back door, through which Colvin-El supposedly
entered the house, could only be opened about four inches (10cm); that witnesses
had seen “suspicious” persons, not Colvin-El, near the house at the time of
the crime; that the police had been investigating a spate of burglaries in
the area, and had identified suspects other than Colvin-El; and that the police
had found jewellery outside the house two days after the crime, undermining
the state’s theory that the pawned watches meant Colvin-El must have been inside
the house. Furthermore, the prosecution apparently withheld from the defence
the fact that a fingerprint had been lifted from paper in the victim’s ransacked
handbag and found to be not that of Colvin-El, but of an unidentified person.
The state Court of Appeals granted Colvin-El a resentencing, not because of
his ineffective counsel, but on the basis that the prosecution had made improper
use of Colvin-El’s juvenile convictions to obtain a death sentence. Two judges
dissented, saying that the question of whether he was the actual killer could
only be resolved at a full retrial. At a hearing in 1992, Colvin-El was again
condemned to death.
In 1998, a federal district judge overturned Colvin-El’s death sentence, finding
that his representation at the 1981 trial had been ineffective “for failing
to bring to the attention of the jury evidence that might have suggested
additional perpetrators”. The judge, who described the evidence against
Colvin-El as “sparse”, found that the failure of Colvin-El’s lawyer to defend
his client at the guilt phase of the original trial “reflects a breakdown of
[the adversarial] process” and that the 1992 resentencing had failed to remedy
this constitutional violation. However, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals,
widely viewed as the most conservative federal court in the country with a
reputation for severe interpretations of Supreme Court precedents and the
Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (the 1996 law which limits
federal judicial power over state court rulings), reversed the district judge’s
decision in 1999.
Aside from the fact that, as two other dissenting state Court of Appeals judges
said, “the evidence was wholly insufficient”, and “the State failed utterly”,
to establish that Eugene Colvin-El was the actual perpetrator of the murder,
the case also raises serious questions about the impact of race in the US capital
justice system. Colvin-El, who is black, was tried in front of an all-white
jury, for the murder of a white woman. At his resentencing, the jury was made
up of one black and 11 whites.
In December 1996 a Task Force on the Fair Imposition of Capital Punishment,
set up by Governor Glendening, concluded that “the high percentage of
African-American prisoners under sentence of death and the low percentage of
prisoners under sentence of death whose victims were African-American remains
a cause for concern.” Of the 17 prisoners currently on death row in Maryland,
12 (71 per cent) are black and five (29 per cent) are white (the state’s
population is about 70 per cent white and 25 per cent black). In 14 of the
cases the victims of the crimes were white, although most murder victims in
Maryland are black (about 80 per cent of the state’s murder victims in 1995
and 1996 were black). Since the USA resumed executions in 1977, Maryland has
executed three prisoners, two black and one white. All three were convicted
of killing whites. Governor Glendening recently set aside US$225,000 to fund
another study on the issue of race in his state’s use of the death penalty.
RECOMMENDED ACTION: Please send telegrams/faxes/express/airmail letters in
English or your own language, in your own words, using the following guide:
- expressing sympathy for the friends and relatives of Lena Buchman, the victim
of a brutal murder;
- expressing concern that Eugene Colvin-El was convicted on the basis of
inconclusive circumstantial evidence and after receiving inadequate legal
representation, both factors which violate international standards;
- noting that several judges have questioned the conviction and sentence;
- expressing concern that Eugene Colvin-El, a black man accused of killing
a white woman, was convicted and sentenced by an all-white jury, and resentenced
by a jury with only one black member;
- expressing concern that Colvin-El, whose case clearly falls within the remit
of the race study budgeted for by the Governor, is facing execution before
the study is completed;
- noting increasing concern about the fairness and reliability of the US death
- urging the Governor to grant clemency.
The Honourable Parris Glendening
Governor of Maryland
State House, Annapolis, MD 21401, USA
Fax: + 1 410 974 3275
Telegrams: Governor Glendening, Annapolis, MD, USA
Salutation:Dear Governor
COPIES TO: diplomatic representatives of the USA accredited to your country.
You may also send letters of concern (not more than 250 words) to:
Letters to the Editor, Baltimore Sun, 501 North Calvert Street
P.0. Box 1377, Baltimore, Maryland 21278, USA
E-mail: feedback@sunspot.net
Fax: + 1 410 332 6455

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