A Baltimore County man could soon be sentenced to death, becoming the only inmate on Maryland's death row whose victims were African-Americans.
Douglas A. Starliper, who is white, was found guilty this week of killing his childhood friends Lavonne K. Hall, 19, and Douglas L. Hebron, 20, and is scheduled to go before Baltimore County Circuit Judge Dana M. Levitz today to begin his sentencing hearing. Prosecutors are asking the judge to impose a death sentence.
All 12 people on Maryland's death row were convicted of killing white people - a fact death penalty opponents have used to argue that Maryland's death penalty law is racially biased.
The Baltimore County state's attorney's office, which is responsible for prosecuting nine of the 12 inmates on death row, is also a common target of death penalty opponents.
But county prosecutors said the Starliper case is a prime example of how the Baltimore County state's attorney's office uses the state's capital punishment laws.
"We are very even-handed in our approach to the death penalty," said Assistant State's Attorney Jason League, who helped prosecute Starliper. "If your case qualifies, we seek it. We don't care if the victims are black or if the victims are white, if the defendants are black or the defendants are white. It is not a race-based decision."
Starliper, 23, was eligible for a death sentence because he killed multiple people at the same time - one of the "aggravating circumstances" required for capital punishment. The victims' families, who this week filled the fourth-floor courtroom, did not object to the death penalty. And prosecutors had evidence against Starliper that went far beyond the testimony of a co-defendant.
With those three requirements met, the Baltimore County state's attorney's office will always seek a death sentence, League said.
Death penalty opponents have argued that such a policy has created an unconstitutional geographic disparity within the state in how the death penalty is applied. Other prosecutors - particularly in Baltimore City - rarely seek capital punishment even when a case fits the legal requirements.
In Starliper's case, it will ultimately be up to Judge Levitz to decide whether Starliper should get death or life in prison.
Jurors took only a few hours Wednesday evening to find Starliper guilty of two counts of first-degree murder and two counts of using a handgun during a violent crime.
The murders occurred early in the morning of July 26, 2001, after a night of drinking, hanging out and arguing, according to court testimony.
Hall, Hebron and Starliper, all of Woodlawn, were friends from the time they were children in Anne Arundel County. In 2001, they often got together in the Summit Avenue apartment in Woodlawn where Hall, Hebron and another friend lived.
That night in the apartment, Hall called Starliper's brother a derogatory name, according to court testimony. Later, in the parking lot outside the apartment, Hebron and Starliper argued again and Hebron called Starliper the same name.
A few minutes later, prosecutors said, Starliper shot Hebron six times. Hebron had been reclining in his car.
"He turned to get away," Deputy State's Attorney Steve Bailey said of Hebron in his closing argument. "And that was when [Starliper] shot him in the back. And then shot him four more times." Starliper then turned to Hall, standing by the hood of the car, and fatally shot him, prosecutors said.
Starliper killed his friends because of the name-calling, the prosecutor said.
"It's obviously a stupid reason to kill two people, but it was his reason," League said. "It's just amazing that two people could be dead over something as silly as this."