WASHINGTON – A federal appeals court has upheld the death sentence in the murders of a Capitol Heights couple in 1995, rejecting killer Heath William Burch’s argument that Maryland death-sentencing provisions are unconstitutional.
A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals also rejected Burch’s argument that his death sentences should be overturned because sentencing procedures were improper and because one juror read aloud from the Bible during sentencing deliberations.
Burch was convicted for the killings of Robert and Cleo Davis, who surprised Burch after he burglarized their Capitol Heights home on March 19, 1995, in an attempt to get money to feed his drug habit.
Court documents said Burch then “savagely attacked” the Davises — who were in their 70s — before stealing their guns, money and a truck. Robert Davis was found dead the next day from multiple stab wounds, 11 of which were from a pair of scissors. Cleo Davis died eight days later from blunt-force injuries.
Burch did not challenge his conviction — he confessed to the killings and the court said there was “overwhelming evidence in Burch’s state court trial linking him to the murders” — only his sentence.
On appeal, Burch cited several reasons his sentence should be overturned.
His attorney, Mark Stichel, noted that state courts had already thrown out one of two death sentences against Burch, since jurors only got one verdict form, not two, when they sentenced him to death. Lower courts threw out the death sentence in Cleo Davis’ murder, sentencing Burch instead to life for that killing.
But Stichel said both death sentences should have been invalidated by the error. Because the circumstances for each murder were different, he said, both sentences need to be re-examined.
“Our position is that the correct remedy for the clear error of submitting only one verdict form should be to vacate both sentences,” he said.
Stichel also argued that Maryland’s death-sentencing procedures do not meet the standards set by the Supreme Court last year in its Apprendi decision.
In that case, the court said factors that affect sentencing must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. But in Maryland, juries only needed to be satisfied by a preponderance of the evidence — not beyond a reasonable doubt — that aggravating factors outweigh mitigating ones in determining a death sentence.
The circuit court said Apprendi did not apply because Burch was convicted and sentenced well before the Supreme Court’s 2000 decision.
Stichel also argued that a juror’s reading and quoting from the Bible during sentencing deliberations violated Burch’s constitutional rights. He said the jury should only consider state law during deliberations and any influence from biblical law — implied or explicit — was improper.
A lower court said the juror “did not rely on the Bible as a source of law” but mostly quoted legally harmless “statements of folk wisdom and cultural precepts.” The appeals court agreed that there was no harm in the biblical readings.
Stichel said Burch would ask for a rehearing of the case in the circuit court. If that request is denied, Burch would ask the Supreme Court to hear the case.
A spokesman for the Maryland Attorney General’s office confirmed the facts of the case Thursday, but he declined to comment otherwise on the court’s decision.