For the first time since a study suggested that race plays a role in Maryland’s application of the death penalty, a black man has been scheduled for execution, the Baltimore Sun reports. The development raises the prospect that a court may soon review the contentious issue. Yesterday, at the request of prosecutors, a judge signed a death warrant for Heath William Burch. The judge also granted a defense request for a stay of execution while Burch’s attorneys mount another round of legal challenges, which they said would incorporate the University of Maryland death penalty study that issued last year.
Burch, 35, was convicted in 1996 of stabbing an elderly couple with a pair of scissors. He does not contest his guilt. The study by criminologist Raymond Paternoster found that blacks who kill whites are 2 1/2 times more likely to be sentenced to death than whites who kill whites. Paternoster also noted a geographic disparity in how death sentences are handed down, saying that defendants in Baltimore County are much more likely to face the death penalty than defendants in other jurisdictions. Five of the seven men on Maryland’s death row are black men who killed white people. Burch and two others who fit that profile are contesting their sentences based in part on Paternoster’s study. Michael Millemann, the attorney for one of them, said he will argue that the death penalty process is “racially biased from the beginning to the end. An overriding question is whether the death penalty in Maryland is administered in a racially discriminatory fashion. It’s hard to imagine a more important question.”