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A death row blogger's advice for life

Vernon Lee Evans Jr. -- amateur advice columnist and convicted murderer -- is scheduled to die next month by lethal injection. He is one of the very few death row inmates to have a blog and, activists say, perhaps the only condemned man worldwide to use a blog to take questions from readers.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

As Vernon Evans sat in his cell on Maryland's death row last spring, he had more to ponder than his own execution.

There was the lonely Brazilian who needed his advice, and a fellow from the District whose question deserved a reply, and a global audience tuned in to the wisdom of a man whose life was on the wane.

Evans was blogging from behind bars.

Vernon Lee Evans Jr. -- amateur advice columnist and convicted murderer -- is scheduled to die next month by lethal injection. He is one of the very few death row inmates to have a blog and, activists say, perhaps the only condemned man worldwide to use a blog to take questions from readers.

Activist Ginny Simmons started the blog in March and relayed the questions to Evans, who does not have Internet access. She stopped posting exchanges on the site in June out of concern that the exchanges could inadvertently harm his legal prospects. With his execution fast approaching, Simmons forwarded a backlog of questions to him last week and plans to post the fresh exchanges once she receives his replies.

Though defense attorneys in capital cases have long strived to remind judges and juries that their clients are human beings with lives beyond the crimes they are accused of, Evans's blog is the leading edge of a strategy by death penalty opponents to use new technologies to make the same point to the wider public.

Activists use new tools to press point
A coalition of activists in Canada maintains Web pages for about 500 death row inmates. Another group, Campaign to End the Death Penalty, began holding events in 1998 in which condemned inmates are patched through by speaker phone. The blogs are the latest experiment, and the activists say Evans's blog is the most novel and daring because readers can post questions.

"Part of the reason the death penalty is allowed to exist is that people don't acknowledge the fact that the people on death row are human beings," Simmons said.

Evans, 56, of Baltimore, was first sentenced to death more than two decades ago for the contract killings of potential witnesses in a federal drug case. He was convicted in the murders of David Scott Piechowicz, 27, and that man's sister-in-law, Susan Kennedy, 19, in 1983 at a hotel that Piechowicz managed in Pikesville.

Though she did not see the shooting, Evans's girlfriend testified at his trial that she saw him carry the gun into the lobby and saw it again -- still smoking -- when he came out. At a resentencing in 1992, Evans said, "It's not hard for me to say I am truly sorry for having been that type of individual that would take two innocent lives."

"His guilt is crystal clear, and I can't think of a more appropriate case for the death penalty," John Cox, one of the Baltimore County prosecutors handling the case, said in an interview.

'I did not kill these people'
On the blog, at , Evans in April assured Laura from Washington state that he was not the gunman, that he did not get a fair trial and that a lawyer told him before his resentencing in 1992 that his only shot at getting off death row was to show remorse. "Laura, I did not kill these people," Evans wrote.

In an exchange with Jay from New Hampshire, Evans reflected on prison life. "A man must find even in the worst things something good or positive to focus on," he wrote. "Sometimes if the forces are with you, blessing will come your way."

To the despairing Brazilian, a musician who had moved to Canada, Evans responded: "Listen to me, I am not always right, but listen to me anyway, and you might get something out of what I have to say. . . . You are young, and you should not have such fear when you are a talented young man."

Confronted with a question from Robert Trouts, who asked that he take his punishment "like a man," Evans wrote that "I have an education on how meaningful life is" and then seemed to strike a note of anger.

"Society dresses up and hires the justice system to kill for its revenge," he wrote in a portion of the response that was removed from the site yesterday. "I bet you are one of those people who would have been for slavery too."

Limited interest in site
A death warrant signed two weeks ago orders that Evans be executed during the five-day period beginning Feb. 6. Barring intervention by the courts or Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), Evans will be put to death almost exactly two months after Maryland's last execution.

Some supporters of the death penalty say they find little of value in Evans's blog or in the larger effort to focus on the humanity of the condemned. "People can exchange notes with him if they want, but I don't think it really adds anything," said Kent Scheidegger, legal director at the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a group that supports legal execution. "The question is whether he deserves the punishment he was sentenced to, and I don't find much enlightening in these discussions."

In a world awash in personal narratives, where millions tune in to watch ordinary people do ordinary things on reality shows, the blogosphere has deemed an exchange with a man sentenced to die to be of limited interest. Fewer than 7,000 people have visited the site.

One of Evans's lawyers, Julie Dietrich, relayed this information to Evans by telephone yesterday. According to Dietrich, he responded: "I don't want to be judgmental about why people do things. In America, people have a comfort zone and try not to deal with anything that's too stressful."