A Prince George's County judge yesterday signed a death warrant for a convicted murderer from Capitol Heights, making him the second man scheduled to be executed in Maryland this year.
Heath W. Burch, 35, convicted in the slayings of an elderly couple nine years ago, is scheduled for a lethal injection the week of Dec. 6, according to the warrant signed by Circuit Court Judge Steven I. Platt. His execution would be the first for a crime committed in Prince George's since 33-year-old Lott Glover was hanged for murder in 1953.
The judge also granted a stay of execution yesterday and gave Burch 30 days to file appeals. Burch's attorney, H. Mark Stichel, said he will seek to overturn the conviction based on a University of Maryland study that showed death sentences are imposed more often when the victims are white. Burch, who is black, killed an elderly white couple.
Death penalty opponents had urged Prince George's State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey not to submit the death warrant to the judge. But Ivey said he did not want to disregard the verdict of a jury, which sentenced Burch to death in 1996.
"I'm not going to overturn the death penalty unilaterally," he said. "I'm going to follow the laws that are in place."
State officials, though, said Ivey was not required to submit the death warrant. Maryland law does not compel state's attorneys to forward death warrants to judges, said Kathryn Grill Graeff, chief of the criminal appeals division of the state attorney general's office.
"It is within the state's attorney's discretion," she said.
Ronald Walters, a University of Maryland political scientist, said the issue could become a political liability for Ivey (D) in a county where half the population opposes capital punishment. A 2004 poll by Bethesda-based Potomac Inc. found that 50 percent of Prince George's residents oppose the death penalty and 36 support it.
"This is not going to be very popular in this county," Walters said. "Some people will probably resolve to remember this if he runs for higher office."
But other analysts said Ivey's decision could be viewed as a tough-on-crime approach that would benefit him in a statewide election. The poll found that 53 percent of Maryland residents support capital punishment.
"There are a lot of middle-class and professional people in the state who are worried by crime, and I don't think they are going to be put off by the death penalty," said Matthew Crenson, another University of Maryland political scientist. Political observers have mentioned Ivey as a possible candidate for lieutenant governor in 2006, as the running mate of Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley (D) if O'Malley runs for governor.
In an interview, Ivey declined to state his personal views on capital punishment but said he supports a statewide commission to review the issue. The decision to seek a capital sentence in Burch's case was made before Ivey took office in 2002. But he said he would have made the same decision.
"I can't say that I have any basis to question the decision to seek the death penalty in this case," he said.
Burch was sentenced to die for the slaying of Robert and Cleo Davis, who lived down the street from him. Burch admitted in court that he was high on crack and intended to rob the couple when he broke into their house on March 19, 1995. Robert Davis, 72, confronted Burch with a gun, but didn't fire the weapon after he recognized his neighbor.
Burch then stabbed the couple dozens of times, stole four guns and $105 in cash and made off in their pickup truck, police said.
Robert Davis's brother, Alton Davis, said Burch deserves the death penalty.
"I'm not all gung-ho to put someone to death, but I think he should pay for what he did," said Davis, 79, of Inverness, Fla. "He should have been gone a long time ago."
Burch's attorneys have until Nov. 22 to file their appeals in the case. Both Stichel and Ivey said it is likely that appeals will delay any execution until after Dec. 6.
In June, Steven Oken became the first inmate executed by the state of Maryland since 1998. He was sentenced to die for murder and sexual assault.