RICHMOND, OCT. 10 -- A former prison warden and civil rights activists are urging Gov. L. Douglas Wilder to call off next Wednesday's scheduled execution of murderer Wilbert Evans, saying he deserves reconsideration because he protected guards and nurses during a 1984 prison riot.
"We're not here to deliver an anti-death penalty harangue," said Evans's attorney, Jonathan Shapiro, at a news conference today near the governor's mansion here. "Evans's case is unique; it's extraordinary . . . . He prevented violence and saved lives."
Evans, 44, of Raleigh, N.C., was sentenced to death in 1984 for shooting an Alexandria sheriff's deputy to death after taking the deputy's gun during a failed 1981 escape attempt. Evans claimed that the deputy was killed accidentally as Evans struggled to shoot off his handcuffs and flee out an open gate in Alexandria's former Old Town jail.
Laura Dillard, press secretary for Wilder, said the governor "is reviewing all the relevant information and materials, as he does in all these cases. Once all other means have been exhausted, that's when the governor makes his decision regarding clemency."
Although Evans's case has been rejected by the Virginia Supreme Court, his attorneys are scheduled to appeal before U.S. District Judge Robert R. Merhige Jr. on Saturday, when they will argue that Evans should benefit from actions occurring after sentencing.
During a prison break by other inmates at the Mecklenburg Correctional Center two months after Evans was condemned to die in the electric chair, he saved 12 guards and two nurses from harm, his supporters say.
Evans said in a death row interview today that he was making a phone call when the jail break began at about 8 p.m. When the men threatened a nurse whom they had stripped and tied to a bed, he said he stepped forward and confronted one of the inmates.
"I told him, 'You walk around here calling yourself a man and a man don't treat a lady like that,' " said Evans. Evans added that he also was able to convince the inmates that it was not in their best interest to hurt the guards before they were able to negotiate for the clothes and car they would need to make good an escape. "I didn't do it because I thought I'd get something out of it," Evans said. "I did it because I thought it was the right thing to do."
In affidavits included in the clemency petition delivered to Wilder in July, Mecklenburg employees support Evans's version of the events. A prison supervisor who talked to some of the hostages after they were freed said, "The consensus of this group was that had it not been for Mr. Evans, they probably would have been killed."
Ricardo Holmes, one of those taken hostage, said he heard Evans tell the other inmates, "Don't hurt anybody and everything will be all right."
The inmates roughed up the guards, stole their uniforms and shoved them into a closet, the affidavits state.
If all appeals fail, Evans will be the second man executed in Virginia this year. Richard Boggs, 27, was electrocuted in July for the robbery and murder of an elderly Portsmouth woman. Virginia has executed nine persons since it reinstituted the death penalty in 1977.
Several people, including a former administrator for the state Department of Corrections, have recently advocated that Evans's death penalty be commuted to life in prison because he has demonstrated he is no longer a threat to society.
Toni V. Bair, the former regional corrections chief, commended Evans for protecting the Mecklenburg guards and nurses who were taken hostage in 1984.
Bair said in a letter to Shapiro that prison staff members and inmates say Evans "did in fact assist staff during that hostage situation to ensure that no one was physically hurt."
Bair said that if the governor recognized Evans's assistance by commuting his death penalty, it "could be a possible positive effect on future inmate behavior."
Shapiro echoed that sentiment, saying, "The message is this: If you do what's right and obey the rules in prison, someone's going to notice."