In Maryland, five wait on death row


A police crime lab van is seen in 1983 at the hotel where Vernon Evans Jr. killed two people. (Weyman Swagger/Baltimore Sun)
February 24, 2013

Vernon Lee Evans Jr. should have been dead by now. A prosecutor did his best to ensure that when he convinced a Maryland jury that Evans was among the worst of the worst, a killer who deserved a punishment more severe than a life spent in prison. He deserved, the prosecutor argued and the jury agreed, to die at the hands of the state.

That was nearly 30 years ago.

In the years since, the motel where Evans gunned down two employees has been replaced by a Howard Johnson. The star witness in the case, a woman who lost her husband and a sister that day, has died. And Evans, who in his own words has “rebuilt” his character, remains on Maryland’s death row, kept alive in a politically forged purgatory.

“In hindsight, it would have been better if he got life without parole,” David B. Irwin, the former prosecutor who handled the case, said recently. “But it wasn’t obvious to us as young prosecutors back then that this was the way it was going to turn out.”

As the state Senate prepares to vote this week on whether Maryland should abolish capital punishment, the Evans case illustrates what can happen when the death penalty exists but is not enforced.

Unlike Virginia, which has executed more than 100 people since 1976, including one man last month, Maryland has executed five people since it reinstituted the death penalty in 1978, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. No one has been executed in Maryland since 2005.

What is essentially a moratorium on capital punishment has been in place in Maryland since 2006, and since 2009, the state has required DNA evidence, a videotaped crime or a videotaped confession in capital cases.

Of the five men on Maryland’s death row, Evans and two others have been there for nearly three decades. In that time, Evans has survived a stabbing, come within hours of execution and outlived the widow he left haunted by a burst of gunfire that was meant for her but killed her sister. Even some of the people who most wanted to see Evans dead no longer do, although not because of any sympathy for him.

“If [Evans] got executed tomorrow, it wouldn’t bother me a bit,” Irwin said. But he won’t, and for Irwin, that’s the problem with the state’s death penalty.

“I’m not morally, religiously or legally against the death penalty,” he said. “It’s on grounds of practicality. It becomes ridiculous and ludicrous after 30 years. If they’re not going to impose the death penalty, why have it on the books?”

The toll

Evans was 33 and a drug addict in April 1983 when authorities say he agreed to kill two federal witnesses, Scott Piechowicz and his wife, Cheryl. The two worked at the Warren House Motel in Pikes­ville, in Baltimore County,and were set to testify against a drug dealer named Anthony Grandison. Heroin and cocaine had been found in one of the motel’s rooms, and only the couple could tie Grandison to it.

It was Evans’s job to silence them, and authorities say that for $9,000 he tried to do so by walking into the motel lobby and firing a Mac-11 machine gun. Six bullets hit Piechowicz and four hit his sister-in-law, Susan Kennedy, who had agreed at the last minute to work for Cheryl.

Years later, after the remarried Cheryl died, husband Bob Bradshaw told The Washington Post that she had read Piechowicz’s autopsy so often she memorized the placement of the bullets, the organs they damaged and the size of the holes they made. She also suffered recurring nightmares about her sister, he said: “Her sister’d come up to her in a halter top. And she got six or seven bullets right in the heart. And she’d see the bullet holes, and Cheryl would say, ‘Susan, you can’t walk around with that on — people can see the bullet holes.’ And Susan would look at her and say, ‘That’s right, Cheryl, because I want everyone to see what you did to me.’ ”

Dana M. Levitz, the prosecutor who tried Grandison and eventually became a Maryland Circuit Court judge, said that as a prosecutor he had asked juries six times for the death penalty and that each time it was granted.

None of those men, including Grandison, has been executed, Levitz said. Instead, he has seen the appeals process extend cases for many years.

“The most difficult part of it,” he said, “was dealing with the effect it had on innocent people, the effect it had on victims’ families and the effect it had on the defendants’ families.”

These days, Grandison, Evans and the other three condemned men are housed in a maximum-security prison in Cumberland. It is one of the few facilities in the nation where death-row inmates live among the general population, said Warden Bobby P. Shearin. At the prison, where 1,000 of the 1,400 inmates are serving life sentences, those on death row have their own cells, but otherwise, they walk the same beige halls as everyone else and follow the same meal schedule: breakfast at 4 a.m, dinner at 3:30 p.m. Officials denied a request from The Post to interview death-row inmates, but in a letter to The Post, Evans described the prison as a place where decent food is scarce — “I have learned to love peanut butter, sardines and beans from the commissary” — and where he and the others on death row share a tier with mentally ill inmates. “So just imagine loud noises,” he writes. “Men getting mace. Men being drag out their cells. Men playing in their waste.”

“A man on death row in the State of Maryland has to have a strong will within and a God to have faith in.”

James McEachin, a pastor who grew up with Evans, describes him as an intelligent man who fell into drugs early. But he is not a killer, said McEachin, who thinks that someone other than Evans was the shooter. Over the years, Evans’s supporters have picketed, spoken to lawmakers and at one point formed the Committee to Save Vernon Evans.

Evans has spoken by phone to area college students through a program called Live from Death Row. At one point, Evans’s words appeared on a blog titled “Meet Vernon.” In 2006, he received a stay 11 hours before he was to be executed.

McEachin said he has visited Evans on death row and prayed through “plexiglass that has got to be at least six inches thick.”

In his letter, Evans describes transferring from one prison to another — and from state to state — over the years, each with its own set of challenges. In one, he says, he had to walk with his hand over his heart because “Cubans were wanting to get a murder charge just to stay in the country.” In another, he was stabbed seven times by a man he was teaching to read.

When he was placed in the Maryland prison system in 2002, he writes, he “had been living with the company of death for 18 years.”

Gov. Martin O’Malley’s proposal to repeal the death penalty — as 17 other states have done — appears on track to pass in the Senate and the House of Delegates. But the bill would affect only future cases. The legislation cannot be applied retroactively to the men on death row because of constitutional concerns, said Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for the governor.

O’Malley (D) would have options. He could commute all or some of the death sentences to life without parole; he could issue an executive order staying all death warrants; he could do nothing and leave the inmates in the hands of future governors. At a hearing this month, O’Malley told lawmakers that he would “decide each of those cases as they ripen.”

The system

Richard Dieter, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said the average time between sentencing and execution is 15 years. Thirty years is rare.

“It’s time to just say enough is enough,” said Jane Henderson, executive director of Maryland Citizens Against State Executions. “The problem with the death penalty is it’s a Catch-22. Everything you do to make it fairer is only going to make the process longer and more torturous for the very people we say we do it for.”

Catherine Kennedy said she thinks the waiting led to an early death for her brother, John Kennedy, who lost daughter Susan in the motel shooting and had to watch daughter Cheryl endure the court proceedings and appeals for Evans and Grandison.

“My brother could not forgive them, and his life just faded away,” Kennedy, 74, said. “I think my brother would very much have liked to be the executioner.”

Kennedy said some of her relatives would still like to see Evans and Grandison executed and that at one point she would have joined her brother, a police sergeant, in performing the task. But she now teaches the Bible and said her view has changed.

She thinks the men are evil. “And I want God to get rid of evil,” she said. “However, I don’t think he gave me that power.”

John Kennedy, 59, died of cancer in 1998. Cheryl, 38, died the same year of a congenital defect that limited blood flow to her brain.

Evans and Grandison “destroyed my brother’s family,” Kennedy said. “My brother was one of the best men on the face of the Earth. He was good, loving, gentle.

“I think had my brother murdered [Evans and Grandison],” she said, “God would have forgiven him.”

After the trial, Irwin find out that John Kennedy was never searched at the courthouse and sat in court with his police-issued firearm at his side. Irwin said he has since questioned the restraint it must have taken for Kennedy to leave the fate of Grandison and Evans to the justice system.

“He believed in the system and the system didn’t work for him,” Irwin said. “I wonder what he would have done if he’d known he would die before they did.”

John Wagner and Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.

Theresa Vargas is a reporter for the Post’s local enterprise team.
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