At first glance, it doesn’t seem like a fair fight. In one corner, standing at well over six feet tall and wearing the $3,000 suit, we have Bob Ehrlich, a former Princeton pugilist, and ex- pro wrestling attorney. He is ambitious, ruthless, and wears a cruel smirk that would make a White House squatting buddy of his proud. He is on the front lines fighting for ‘family values’ alongside his crusading wife Kendell — who said charmingly last year that she wanted to “shoot” pop star Britney Spears. Also, he’s the Governor of the state of Maryland.
In the opposing corner, standing at a mere five foot two and wearing the orange jumpsuit, is someone who matches Big Bob’s power only with his apparent powerlessness. Someone who, as Bobby stands on top of the world is staring death in the face. That someone is Vernon Lee Evans. Vernon has been on Maryland’s death row for 22 years and now is facing execution the week of April 18th.
If Big Bob’s Princeton pedigree foretold his future success, wind stiffly at his back, then Vernonís circumstance charted a brutally inverse path. Vernon–a Black man–found himself charged with killing two whites in Baltimore County. In Maryland, this is like getting accused by George Bush of having WMDs: the facts matter far less to your fate than the accusation.
To this day, Vernon maintains his innocence for the 1983 shootings of David Peichowicz and Susan Kennedy. But in Maryland, if you are caught in the wrong county with the wrong color skin, your possible innocence is a quizzical–even quaint–irrelevancy. On Maryland’s death row, 71% of residents are Black and everyone currently on the row is charged with killing someone white, even though African Americans make up 80% of the state’s murder victims. The overwhelming majority of the violent crimes that end in execution also occur in Baltimore County, a place where legal lynchings are as much a way of life as mint juleps, cotillions, and King Cotton in old Dixie.
The tale of the tape doesn’t seem to favor Vernon. It has–in language Bob would understand–an Andre the Giant vs. Koko B. Ware feel to it. But like many an overconfident Goliath, Big Bob may have taken on the wrong David. For one thing, Vernon Lee Evans, despite 22 years of confinement designed to beat out every last ounce of his resolve, wants to fight back. He, alongside the Campaign to End the Death Penalty in Maryland, will be organizing a series of what are called ‘Live from Death Rowsí over the next five weeks. These are meetings held on campuses and in communities where Vernon Lee Evans will call in on a speaker phone and go public. Vernon, unlike Bob, will answer all questions regarding his case. Vernon, unlike Bob, will ask why Blacks were systematically excluded from his jury, why the State’s main witness received a deal in exchange for her testimony, and why the only eyewitness to the crime could not even identify him out of a line up. Vernon, unlike Bob, will confront the racism that encircles his case like a garrote. Vernon, unlike Bob, will be an emissary of struggle, hope, and the drive for a better world. At every event will be members of Vernon’s family, such as Dr. Evangelist Gwen Bates, who has labored tirelessly for her brother’s release.
Unfortunately, this won’t be easy. Bob, on a law and order crest, is hankerin’ for a hanging. That means we will have to do more than speak out, we will have to organize. On April 9th, the Evans family and the CEDP has called for a demonstration at the Supermax prison in Baltimore City. This is where Maryland’s death row sits: a new prison in the middle of the projects ñ a death row whose presence sends a towering message to the Black and poor of Baltimore about exactly what the state perceives their potential to be. We will march alongside the Evans family, exonerated death row inmates, and hundreds of other folks who want legal lynchings tossed into the dust heap of history.
Finally, let’s put this in language that Ehrlich will understand. On paper, there is no way Vernon Lee Evans should be able to stand up to Robert Ehrlich. On paper, in the tale of the tape, this looks like Mike Tyson vs. Buster Douglas, Sonny Liston vs. Cassius Clay, George Foreman vs. Muhammad Ali. But, as those contests showed, these fights don’t just happen on paper.
If you live in the area, please contact us to get involved. If you don’t, e-mail Governor Ehrlich’s office at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 410.974.3901. In the name of Vernon Evans, and everyone on Marylandís death row, this shall not pass. We can win a stay and strike a blow against the machinery of death, but we will have to work together to make it happen.
DAVE ZIRIN’s new book “What’s My Name Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States” will be in stores in June 2005. You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by e-mailing email@example.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.