Judge's deliberation continues 11 days after closing arguments in Schech murder trial

The state and the defense delivered closing arguments Friday, May 11.

Eleven days after closing arguments in The State of Maryland v. Robert Schech Sr., the verdict continues to be deliberated. A ruling in the Schech murder and arson trial could be imminent, or the deliberation could continue for weeks.

The trial was conducted as a bench trial, meaning there is no jury. Judge Thomas Stansfield is the case’s sole fact-finder. He took the case under advisement at the conclusion of proceedings Friday, May 11, and will give notice to both parties when he has reached a verdict.


David Gray, professor of law at The University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law said, “If a judge says ‘I’m taking it under advisement,’ it means he is weighing all the evidence and deliberating in the same way a jury [would].”

The verdict can either be delivered from the bench, Gray said, or issued as a written opinion, noting that both options can take an extended amount of time to prepare.

Unlike a jury trial, where members are asked only to deliver a verdict of guilty or not guilty, a judge is required to provide a detailed justification of the way he weighed and evaluated all the evidence.

Gray said is not aware of a case in which a judge can declare deadlock equivalent to a hung jury. If the judge is not sufficiently persuaded by the prosecution in a case, it will result in an acquittal.

“Unanimity is achieved by definition when they have one fact-finder,” he said.

Gray said it is likely that any judge with a case under advisement will also have a busy docket and continue to appear in court even as they work to prepare their verdict.

On Tuesday, Stansfield presided over several hearings and scheduling conferences in the historic courthouse of the Carroll County Circuit Court, according to the online docket.

Joseph Murtha, defense attorney for Schech, said the role of the defense at this time is to wait for a verdict the same as if they were waiting for a jury to deliberate.

“There was a lot of evidence that was provided to the judge,” he said. “Whatever amount of time … we certainly don’t object.”

Murtha said he had visited Schech on Sunday to make sure his client knew what was going on.

He said Stansfield is an experienced judge and would be conscientious of the appropriate time needed to reach a decision.

Carroll County State’s Attorney Brian DeLeonardo said he cannot comment on any pending case.

The trial began on Monday, April 30, in Carroll County Circuit Court and Schech waived his right to a trial by jury.

The reason a defense might choose a bench trial depends on what the issues are, Gray said. One common reason is when a case deals with forensic evidence or relies heavily on expert testimony. “Juries tend to be wowed by forensic evidence,” Gray said, and the defense may feel that a judge is better qualified to scrutinize evidence.


Other common reasons for a defendant to waive the right to a jury trial include cases with emotionally charged witnesses where a judge may be perceived as more dispassionate, Gray said. In long cases where the decision turns on being able to focus on and scrutinize a large amount of evidence, it may be more difficult for a jury to keep track than an experienced judge.

In the Schech trial, testimony and evidence were presented over the course of nine days. Prosecutors sought conviction on charges of first-degree murder; first-degree arson; and first-degree felony murder, a charge that can be sought when a death occurs in the commission of a felony. In this case, the death that occurred in the commission of the alleged arson.

On Nov. 13, 2016, a house fire at 2611 Hoffman Mill Road, Hampstead, led to the death of Schech’s wife, 55-year-old Donna Marie Schech.

Prosecutors said Robert Schech Sr. set the fire intentionally using gasoline as an accelerant to cover up evidence of wrongdoing that night.

The investigation conducted by the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office (CCSO) and the Office of the State Fire Marshal (OFSM) reported that the fire originated in two areas of the home.

The state argued that the fire was intentionally set in two areas that blocked the exits from the first floor and basement of the home. Blunt force trauma to Donna Schech’s head and the positioning of her body were circumstantial evidence, it argued. Expert witnesses called by the state testified that Robert Schech Sr.’s injuries were consistent with flash burns obtained by igniting gasoline.

Schech took the stand in his own defense during the trial and said the charges were “ridiculous.” He tried to find ways to put out the fire on that night, but when, after he had exited the home, he could not get back into it because the heat was too strong, he did everything in his power to reach a phone and call 911, according to his testimony.

The state said Schech’s statements contained lies and his recollection of the night of the fire did not make logical sense.

The defense argued that “ample” reasonable doubt existed in the case and there was not sufficient physical evidence from the fire scene or evidence of motive from Schech’s life to continue with the charges. An expert witness brought in by the defense challenged the investigator’s findings and concluded that the fire was accidental.

After closing arguments concluded on Friday, May 11, Stansfield took the case under advisement and said the court would reconvene after he reaches a verdict.