Time is Running Out for Vernon Evans

Vernon Evans’ latest request for a stay of execution has been denied. This decision by a Baltimore County circuit judge was no surprise and will clear the way for a higher court and in this case slightly more enlightened one to render an opinion on Vernon’s request. Having been an anti-death penalty activist for more than a decade, I’ve learned not to confuse principal – or even basic morality – with the bizarre mechanisms of the courts.

The only time “morality” ever makes its entrance is through the self-righteous sputtering of a judge unleashing bombastic condemnation upon some poor (usually black) miscreant — but that’s more theater than justice. After ten years I have significantly lowered my expectations. Still, as anticipated as the decision was, it is still a slap in the fact and I am angry.

What the judge decreed, in essence, was that Vernon’s claim that he is a victim of the proven racism that riddles Maryland’s death penalty process was without merit. Never mind that in 2003 a Governor-commissioned, $250,000 study of Maryland’s death penalty found that “blacks who kill whites are 2 times more likely to be sentenced to death than whites who kill whites, 3 times more likely than blacks who kill blacks, and almost 11 times more likely to be sentenced to death than ëother’ racial combinations.” Vernon is a black man accused of killing two white victims in Baltimore County. He never had a chance.

Even a cursory glance at Maryland’s death row shows the legitimacy of Vernon’s claims. In Vernon’s trial, prosecutors used 8 out of 10 of their preemptory strikes before trial to remove potential black jurors. Furthermore, a study performed by Howard University criminologist Richard Selzer showed that during this period, County prosecutors were striking black jurors at twice the expected rate. Across Maryland, every year blacks account for approximately 80% of murder victims, yet 7 out 8 of those on death row are accused of killing whites. And even though black-on-white murder accounts for less than 5% of killings in Maryland, yet such cases make up over 62% (5 out of 8) of Maryland’s current death row population.

In the US Supreme Court’s infamous 1987 McCleskey decision (just about the same time they were okaying the execution of 16 year olds) the Court decided that statistics showing how race affects the death penalty were of no consequence. In a decision that belongs up there with Plessy v. Ferguson, the court decided that unless a defendant could show specific racist intent in their own trial, racist trends were of no consequence. Of course, prosecutors have long ago learned to avoid certain words and phrases. Terms like “animal” drive the point home just as well as “nigger” these days.

But as if to taunt my jaded abolitionist mind even further, over the past two weeks county prosecutors have been up to their old tricks. Just two days ago, Baltimore County prosecutors announced that they will seek the death penalty against John Edward Kennedy, an 18 year-old boy accused of killing the dean of a private school during a botched robbery attempt. The boy is 18 years old, but as a reporter at a local newspaper observed to me, “he looks more like 16.” I guess this is the prosecutors’ sick answer to the recent US Supreme Court’s Roper v. Simmons decision outlawing the execution of juvenile offenders. And, you guessed it, the boy is black– the victim white.

Maryland has a record on this type of thing. Local amateur historians are fond of interrupting anyone who refers to Maryland as a northern state. Far from it, Maryland’s history and culture is full of the stench of the old plantocracy and racial codifications that came with it. Lynchings, racial terror, segregation, and continued discrimination are as part of the “Free State” as crab cakes. In fact, since the state started tracking numbers in 1923, blacks have accounted for 77% of all executions and 88% of those executed under 25 years of age. The last teenager executed in Maryland was Leonard Shockley. Shockley, a poor black 16 year-old from Pennsylvania, was convicted of killing a white woman in Dorchester County, Maryland. Shockely remains to this day the youngest person executed in the United States since 1959.

From the tragic to the absurd, a week prior to the indictment of the 18-year-old Kennedy, Baltimore County prosecutors showed their sense of humor. During a marathon prison bus ride, there was a murder. The prisoners were being transported from a maximum-security prison in Hagerstown to Baltimore for their court hearings. One prisoner, Kevin G. Johns Jr., was a deeply disturbed, possibly schizophrenic, individual convicted of strangling his uncle and had also recently been convicted of killing a 16 year-old cellmate. During his last court hearing, the Johns begged the judge for help, claiming that he was sure that he would kill again without treatment. The man Johns is accused of killing, Phillip Parker Jr., was being transported in order to testify on Johns’ behalf. As a result of the killing, 5 corrections officers were severely punished: three fired, two disciplined. It’s a full-blown scandal in the Department of Corrections. But now, enter Baltimore County. Somehow, county prosecutors have ascertained that during the hours long bus ride, the killing occurred in their jurisdiction. And someone’s gotta die. That’s justice, Baltimore County style. By the way, Johns is a black man.

And so it goes. I know that in order to get relief on his concerns, Vernon will have to clear the hurdle of McClesky. In a similar way, I know even though the only eyewitness to the murder stated Vernon was not the killer, this is little help in avoiding an execution on April 18th. Still, I sit here angry. I hope you are too.

Join Maryland activist for a march to Maryland’s death row in Baltimore on Saturday, April 9th at 2 PM. Gather at Cane Field (Monument and Ensor). Email cedp_dc@hotmail.com for more information.

Also, contact Governor Ehrlich and demand a halt to the execution of Vernon Evans: ROBERT L. EHRLICH, JR., Governor State House 100 State Circle Annapolis, MD 21401 – 1925 (410) 974-3901 1-800-811-8336 (toll free, Maryland) e-mail: Governor@gov.state.md.us fax: (410) 974-3275 tdd: (410) 333-3098 web: www.gov.state.md.us

Michael Stark is a regular contributor to the New Abolitionist, the newsletter of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. See: www.nodeathpenalty.org