On Maryland's Death Row: Heath Burch

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By Robert Klemko
Maryland Newsline
Friday, May 1, 2009

ANNAPOLIS - Heath Burch, 39, convicted in March 1996 of killing his elderly neighbor, has been on Maryland’s death row for 13 years.

According to court records, Burch said he was in the depths of a crack-induced high when he climbed through the bathroom window of neighbor Robert Davis' Capitol Heights home in the early morning hours of March 19, 1995, and met an underwear-clad Davis, 72, holding a .22-caliber pistol.

Burch admitted to finding a pair of scissors and stabbing Davis 33 times, court records state.

When Davis’ 78-year-old wife, Cleo, began to call the police, Burch knocked her down and punched her several times, court records state. She died in a hospital eight days later.

Those close to Mr. Davis speculated in trial that the former Army Air Corps gunner and World War II Purple Heart recipient may not have fired on Burch because he knew him.

Burch fled that morning with four guns, $105 in cash, and the couple’s Ford Bronco, court records state.  He drove to his brother’s home in Capitol Heights with his neck and hands covered in blood, and told him that he had killed two people.

Upon his arrest days later, Burch admitted to the crime, and to the murder of 36-year-old Ludwell Washington, who was one of three men Burch said he stabbed during a robbery at the Doswell E. Brooke Elementary School a year earlier, in April 1994, court records state. Burch was never tried for the 1994 crimes.

In a search of Burch’s home the day he was arrested, police found a boot that matched a bloody footprint found at the Davises' murder scene.

In addition, authorities recovered traces of the victims’ blood on clothes in Burch's home.

On April 21, 1995, Burch was indicted in Prince George's County Circuit Court for the first- and second-degree murders of the Davises, voluntary manslaughter of the couple, robbery with a deadly weapon, attempted robbery with a deadly weapon, robbery, attempted robbery and first degree burglary. The state’s attorney’s office would seek the death penalty.

During Burch’s 10-day trial that began on March 12, 1996, Assistant Public Defender Joseph Niland asked a Prince George’s County jury to consider Burch’s drug addiction and abusive childhood in an effort to sway them from issuing a death sentence. He said that Burch grew up with five siblings who were the constant target of an alcoholic father’s physical abuse. He argued that if Burch were not high on March 19, 1995, he would not have killed his neighbors.

"Do we really want to kill Mr. Burch?" Niland asked in court.

On March 22, 1996, Burch was found guilty on all counts but the manslaughter charge; it took the jury nine hours to decide that Burch should die for what he did.

Later Burch would claim that the single verdict form used to decide his fate and a number of other trial mistakes were cause for a retrial.

In 1997, Burch had one of his two death sentences overturned when his lawyers successfully argued that the jury submitted one verdict card and failed to consider the murders separately.

In a 1999 appeal, Burch sought additional relief, claiming “that the sentencing provisions of Maryland's death-penalty statute are unconstitutional, that the submission of a single Verdict Form to [his] sentencing jury violated his due process rights, that he received ineffective assistance of counsel at trial, and that a juror's reading from a Bible during the jury's sentencing deliberations violated his constitutional rights.”

A Fourth Circuit appeals court found these claims “without merit.”  

Burch was denied his latest appeal for a U.S. Supreme Court review of his case in 2002.

But anti-capital punishment groups have protested Burch’s death sentence on the grounds that he did not receive a fair trial because his victims were white. Activists cite a University of Maryland study that found that the overwhelming majority of men on death row are black, and their victims white. Burch is black.

Based on his death sentence, Burch was not tried in the 1994 elementary school burglary or the fatal stabbing of Ludwell Washington prior to the Davis killings.

Heath Burch is one of five men on Maryland’s death row.

Copyright 2009 University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism

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