Judge imposes two life terms in killing of 2

Levitz calls death penalty with `years of appeals' cruel to victims' families

`It doesn't bring closure'

Opponents of executions say decision again raises racial issues in sentencing

March 07, 2003|By Stephanie Hanes | Stephanie Hanes,SUN STAFF

A Baltimore County judge decided against capital punishment for convicted murderer Douglas A. Starliper of Woodlawn yesterday, saying a death sentence and its decades-long appeal process would leave the victims' families without closure.

Circuit Judge Dana M. Levitz said that he knew of no other Maryland judge who had noted the painful arduousness of the death penalty process as a reason to decide against it.

"The reality of the situation is that were the death penalty imposed in this case, the victims' families have to look forward to years, years of appeals, of retrials," Levitz said in court. "If there is anything cruel and unusual about Maryland's death penalty in 2003, in my opinion it's that."

Levitz's criticism of how the death penalty affects victims' families, spoken in the county responsible for the majority of the state's death row inmates, has wide resonance at a time when the state's lawmakers and the Maryland Court of Appeals consider a flurry of issues related to capital punishment.

Some death penalty opponents pointed to Levitz's decision as an example of how people who kill whites are more likely to go to death row than those with black victims.

No current death row inmate in Maryland killed a black victim.

"It's a pattern," said state Sen. Ralph M. Hughes, a Baltimore Democrat who has sponsored a bill seeking a moratorium on the death penalty. "Black people are killed, and the death penalty is not given."

But Levitz made clear in court that there were multiple factors in his decision to impose two consecutive life sentences, rather than death, for the killings in 2001 of Douglas L. Hebron, 20, and Lavonne K. Hall, 19, both of Woodlawn, black men who were childhood friends of Starliper, 23, who is white.

To some prosecutors and death penalty advocates, Levitz's comments reflect the harm caused by lawmakers' regular changes to the death penalty law, and by constant reversals in death penalty cases by the Court of Appeals.

"It points to the sad state of affairs, particularly in what's happening in Annapolis," said Baltimore County Deputy State's Attorney Stephen Bailey, who prosecuted Starliper. "Don't enact a statute 25 years ago and then continue to tinker with it so no case can come to conclusion."

Kent S. Scheidegger, legal director of the California-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a nonprofit group that supports the death penalty, said rule changes were "the No. 1 problem with capital punishment."

But death penalty opponents said there won't be an end to debate about death penalty laws because there is no good way to implement capital punishment.

"The judge is basically admitting that the death penalty system doesn't work," said Michael Stark, the Baltimore-Washington coordinator of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. "In the end, it doesn't serve victims' families, it doesn't bring closure. In the end, it's best just to chuck it if we are genuinely concerned with feelings of victims."

A legislative vote to abolish the death penalty, Bailey said, would be more honest than the modifications that keep victims' families suffering appeal after appeal, retrial after retrial.

In his statements, Levitz did not say whether the state should have a death penalty.

But he pointed out that as a prosecutor in the county state's attorney's office -- which he left to become a judge in 1985 -- he won death sentences against six defendants.

No executions

None has been executed. Four have had their sentences reduced, and two are still on death row.

"I have to look at the victims' families," Levitz said yesterday. "I have to look at [the] defendant's family. I see them. This isn't an academic exercise. And one of the mitigating factors that has to be taken into consideration is that by imposing the death sentence I pretty much assure that this will be an ongoing, seemingly never ending legal experience."

Jane Henderson, co-director of the Quixote Center, a justice center that wants a moratorium on the death penalty, said many victims realize that limiting appeals is not the way to fix the situation.

That is why many oppose the death penalty, Henderson said.

"They understand that there's only so much you can do to shorten the appeals process," she said. "And the necessary length of the appeals process is too long."

Starliper was convicted of shooting to death his two childhood friends after they called him a name during a night of drinking and arguing.

UM study

A recent University of Maryland study noted that killers with white victims are far more likely to go to death row than those with black victims -- a point death penalty opponents seized on when talking about Starliper's case.

"Without claiming anything went wrong in this particular case, it certainly conforms to a disturbing greater trend," said Stark.

The county state's attorney's office views Starliper as an example of the office's race-neutrality, prosecutors said.

In Starliper's case, Levitz gave a number of reasons why there should be no death sentence: Starliper had never been convicted of a violent crime before the killings and both he and the victims were drunk at the time of the shooting. Starliper was immature, the judge said, and was friends with the victims.

"We are not talking about a defendant who went out and shot strangers," the judge said.

Starliper will have no chance for parole for almost 50 years.

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