WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court refused Tuesday to hear the appeal of a Maryland death-row inmate who argued that he was wrongly sentenced under harsher guidelines that took effect after he committed his crimes.
Vernon Evans Jr. was convicted in the 1983 contract killing of David Scott Piechowicz and Susan Kennedy at the Warren House Motel in Pikesville.
Evans was paid $9,000 by Anthony Grandison to kill Piechowicz and his wife, Cheryl, who were to testify against Grandison in a federal drug trial. But Kennedy was working that day for her sister, Cheryl, and was slain in her place. Grandison is also on death row for his part in the case.
“I can’t think of a more deserving case for the death penalty than this,” said Baltimore County Assistant State’s Attorney John Cox, who has been on the case since 1989.
It is at least the sixth appeal by Evans to the Supreme Court — and his sixth rejection.
“It’s astounding,” Cox said of Evans’ lengthy appeals process. “He’s been through an incredible number of different times . . . it baffles me that the system can take this long.”
But Evans’ attorney said he did not think it would be the last appeal.
“I am certain that there are other issues that the courts have yet to look at that raise issues about the sentence meted out to Mr. Evans, so we will be involved in other court proceedings,” said the lawyer, A. Stephen Hut.
In his latest appeal, Evans argued that he was sentenced under the wrong death-penalty statute.
The murders were committed in April 1983, when “the Maryland death-penalty statute specifically identified intoxication as one of the statutorily enumerated mitigating circumstances” for juries considering capital punishment, according to his petition to the high court.
But the law changed on July 1, 1983. “Intoxication” was removed from the official list of conditions that juries had to treat as mitigating factors. Instead, the burden fell to the defendant to prove that he was intoxicated and that his intoxication was a definite mitigating factor.
Evans argued that being sentenced under guidelines not in place at the time of his crime violated the constitutional ex post facto clause that prohibits retroactive application of changes in the law.
But the state argued that not only did Evans’ death sentence not violate the ex post facto law, but that he waived the claim by not raising it earlier.
The state’s petition also said that the Maryland Court of Appeals, in its last ruling on the case, found that the 1983 change in the sentencing law did not change the evidence needed for a conviction. The appeals court said it merely changed the judgment as to whether intoxication should be considered a mitigating factor — and even then “there was no significant change.”
Death penalty opponents said they were distressed by the Supreme Court’s refusal to take up the case.
“It’s cause for alarm, another questionable case coming out of Baltimore County,” said Mike Stark, regional organizer for the Campaign to End the Death Penalty.
A University of Maryland study last year showed that Baltimore County prosecutors seek the death penalty more often than prosecutors in any other county in the state.
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