A Shorter Line on Death Row
Pr. George's Man May Be Months From Execution Date
By Susan Levine
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 19, 2004; Page B01
Of the seven men remaining on Maryland's death row after Thursday night's execution of Steven Oken, all but one have appeals pending in state or federal court. And before the end of the year, prosecutors in Prince George's County could decide to seek a warrant for his death.
Not since 33-year-old Lott Glover was hanged for murder more than half a century ago has a Prince George's crime resulted in an execution. But State's Attorney Glenn Ivey said yesterday that with Oken's execution and the apparent resolution of challenges to lethal injection, the case of Heath Burch was under review in his office.
"We're trying to move forward," Ivey said. As to the timing of a possible warrant, "I think the next few months is about as specific as I want to get."
The Capitol Heights man, now in his mid-thirties, was sentenced to die for the slaying of two elderly neighbors, Robert and Cleo Davis. Burch had grown up just down the street from the couple. On a March night in 1995 -- intent on burglary and high on crack cocaine, according to his defense -- he broke into their house. When the retired D.C. firefighter confronted him with a gun, Burch stabbed husband and wife dozens of times with a pair of scissors, took several guns and $105 in cash and drove away in their pickup truck.
On Monday, Burch's attorneys wrote Ivey for a meeting, "because we're not sure what is going on," attorney William Kanwisher said.
Ivey expects to sit down with them soon. He also is trying to be in touch with the victims' family. Whether pushing ahead could result in a second execution this year -- not since 1959 has Maryland put two people to death in a single year -- is a different issue.
"These things can drag on for a long time, so it's not easy to predict," he said.
Maryland Solicitor General Gary Bair agreed. Just look at Oken, he said. Two death warrants for him were signed and then stayed because of legal points that suddenly seemed applicable from cases elsewhere in the country and because of an execution moratorium imposed in Maryland over concerns of inequities in the capital system.
"It always seems that there's something else out there that ends up getting raised and litigated," Bair said.
Of the seven men on death row, four are there for crimes committed in Baltimore County, the Maryland jurisdiction that pursues capital punishment most. Five are black and two white, a ratio that death penalty opponents contend illustrates deep problems in the system.
Burch's case is far from the oldest. Three men have been incarcerated since 1984.
Each of those three men has motions pending in various courts. Anthony Grandison, who was convicted of hiring Vernon Lee Evans to kill federal witnesses prepared to testify against him in a drug trial, is seeking a fresh trial based on newly discovered evidence as well as documents allegedly withheld by prosecutors.
Grandison and Evans obtained significantly more time when they won resentencing in 1992, essentially sending their appeals process back to the start. Nevertheless, one of Grandison's attorneys fears that Oken's execution will accelerate the process for every Maryland inmate facing lethal injection.
"I believe they'll start moving faster now," Christopher Davis said of local and state officials. "A lot of guys are at the end of the line. You saw how fast things moved with Oken. One minute he's got a stay, and the next minute he doesn't."
Although judges rejected Oken's argument that the state's sentencing procedure is contrary to two recent Supreme Court rulings, they did not decide its legality under the state constitution.
Wesley Baker, who fatally shot a woman in a parking lot robbery in front of her grandchildren, has a hearing on that issue before the Maryland Court of Appeals in September. The date is assurance that he's still a ways from being in Heath Burch's position.
But this week shook him and all the others who reside on the row. Maryland had not put anyone to death since 1998. Virginia has executed 45 people in that period.
"Steven Oken was someone who was their roommate," noted Baker's attorney, Gary Christopher, who spoke to him by telephone yesterday morning. "What happened . . . was a very sobering event for the men there."
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