With two months left in office, Gov. Martin O'Malley has asked to meet with at least two families whose loved ones were killed by men on Maryland's death row — a move that might signal the governor is poised to take action on death penalty cases.
Since the state acted last year to abolish the death penalty for future cases, advocates on both sides of the issue have been watching to see whether O'Malley would grant clemency to four men already on death row.
Mary Francis Moore of Boonsboro is scheduled to talk with O'Malley on Monday about one of them, Heath William Burch, who in 1995 killed Moore's father and his wife with scissors during a drug-fueled break-in of their home.
"We're very upset with this. We don't know what's happening," said Moore, 71, who said she and her family fear O'Malley might decide to grant Burch clemency. "The way they keep changing things, is this guy going to eventually get out?"
Dorothy Atkinson of Salisbury, whose son was murdered by death row inmate Jody Lee Miles in 1997, said an aide to O'Malley called her Tuesday and said the governor wanted to speak with her. A date for their meeting has not been set.
Though Atkinson believes Miles deserves to be executed, she submitted a letter to O'Malley two weeks ago, asking him to commute Miles' sentence to put an end to court proceedings, which she says are painful for the family.
Atkinson said she is angry the case has dragged on so long but glad O'Malley will meet with her.
"He's not been through this. He doesn't know what it's like," she said.
Meanwhile, Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger — a staunch death penalty supporter — said the governor's office contacted him in an attempt to locate relatives of the victims of death row inmates Vernon Evans and Anthony Grandison.
"Unfortunately, we really do not have any family members in those cases, because so many people have passed away over the passage of time," Shellenberger said. Evans and Grandison were convicted of the contract murder of two people in a Pikesville hotel in 1983.
O'Malley has largely refused to discuss the fate of the men who were already sentenced to death when Maryland repealed the death penalty, saying only that he would consider each case as requests for clemency reached his desk. A lawyer for Burch said recently that he submitted such a petition earlier this year.
A spokesman for the governor declined to comment for this article.
This month, Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler said his office has concluded that the state no longer has the authority to execute anyone, even though the repeal legislation was not intended to be retroactive. Gansler is joining lawyers for Miles in arguing that the state can't issue new regulations for how to carry out executions now that capital punishment has been abolished. The old rules were thrown out by a court in 2006.
Though Miles' appeal faces an uncertain outcome in the courts, Gansler noted that O'Malley has the ability with the stroke of a pen to commute death sentences to life without parole. Governors in Illinois and New Jersey commuted the existing death sentences in their states after the repeal of capital punishment.
Shellenberger opposes commutation. "We believe that the convictions in Evans and Grandison have been upheld on appeal, on numerous occasions. The law passed that repealed the death penalty did nothing to change the validity of those convictions," Shellenberger said.
Jane Henderson, executive director of Maryland Citizens Against State Executions, said O'Malley should commute the sentences of all four death row inmates and was pleased to hear he had reached out to victims' relatives.
"One of the biggest reasons [to commute the sentences] is just to end this and not put the families through more legal procedures, when everyone knows there's no way to carry out a death sentence in Maryland," Henderson said.
Burch, 45, was sentenced to die in 1996 for killing Robert Davis, 70, and Cleo Davis, 77, in their Capitol Heights home. Moore said it has been years since she heard anything about the case. She said O'Malley's aides did not specifically say why he was seeking the meeting but mentioned Burch.
O'Malley's "been in there how many years and never touched this. Now all of a sudden he's paying attention?" said Moore, who lives in Washington County. "It's like he's trying to get this resolved before he leaves."
Moore said her conversation with O'Malley on Monday will be over the phone. She declined a face-to-face meeting, not because she does not want to meet with the governor, but because she generally prefers to stay at home with her family on their farm. She said her mind has been racing about what the governor wants to speak to her about.
"I've got to get myself prepared," she said. "I've got to write things down. I want to be able to kind of go step to step with him."
Moore believes the move might be politically motivated, with O'Malley, a Democrat, preparing to leave office and with the election of a new governor, Republican Larry Hogan, who opposed the repeal of capital punishment. Hogan has been noncommittal about the remaining inmates.
Burch's attorney, Michael E. Lawlor, could not be reached for comment Thursday. Earlier this month, he said the "basic element of consistency and fairness would seem to dictate that these four individuals be removed from death row and given sentences of life."
Burch lived down the street from the Davises, and admitted in court that he was high on crack and intended to rob them to get money to buy more drugs.
Robert Davis, a World War II veteran and retired Washington, D.C., firefighter, confronted Burch with a gun but didn't fire after he recognized his neighbor.
Burch beat and stabbed the couple dozens of times with a pair of scissors, stole four guns and a small amount of cash, and fled in their pickup truck.
He was sentenced to two death sentences, one of which the state's highest court overturned. The appeal divided the seven-member Court of Appeals, with Chief Judge Robert M. Bell writing that errors in sentencing meant the court should overturn both death sentences.
A Prince George's County judge signed his death warrant in 2004, and execution dates have been set, only to be canceled.
Moore's uncle and Robert Davis' brother, Jack, said Burch should have been put to death years ago.
"He should get what he's sentenced to," Jack Davis, who now lives in Florida, said Thursday.
Davis said he initially had mixed emotions when the sentence was handed down — "I'm not a killer," he said — but he believes Burch's sentence should be upheld.
"The judge ordered to give him the death penalty. What the hell does the governor have to change that?" he said.