Approach to capital cases not new, judge, friends say

Levitz says his decision against death not about race, but effects of trials

March 08, 2003|By Stephanie Hanes | Stephanie Hanes,SUN STAFF

When Dana M. Levitz was in the Baltimore County state's attorney's office, there were times he would look at a victim's family and pray that jurors would reject his request for a death sentence. The state's capital punishment system was devastating to families, he thought, with its never-ending appeals and retrials.

But he was an ambitious prosecutor with a long-standing goal of becoming a judge, and it was his job to go for death. He asked for six death sentences as a prosecutor, and won all six.

Now, 20 years later, Levitz is 54 and a veteran Baltimore County Circuit Court judge. None of the killers he put on death row has been executed, and his protests about Maryland's capital punishment law have grown stronger.

This week, Levitz became the first judge in Maryland to note the death penalty's impact on a victim's family as a reason not to impose it. He sentenced Douglas A. Starliper to two life terms for shooting and killing two friends in 2001.

"This isn't an academic exercise," he said in court. "By imposing the death sentence, I pretty much assure that this will be an ongoing, seemingly never-ending legal experience."

Levitz's decision comes amid serious debate over the fairness of Maryland's death penalty. A recent University of Maryland study found geographic biases, with Baltimore County prosecutors sending more defendants to death row than any other jurisdiction.

The study also found racial discrepancies in the way capital punishment is imposed, with black defendants who kill whites most often sentenced to death.

Starliper, a 23-year-old white man, shot and killed two of his friends, Douglas L. Hebron, 20, and Lavonne K. Hall, 19, both of whom were black. Some death penalty opponents say Levitz's ruling confirms the study's findings about race.

But Levitz said racial factors played no role in his decision.

"In this case, the people could be purple, they could be green," he said in an interview yesterday.

Those who know the judge best say Levitz's decision and his comments in court about the death penalty were simply examples of what has long been his legal persona.

"He combines a brightness about the law with an empathy for the people who are involved in all parts of the system," said Stephen Tully, a Baltimore attorney who has been friends with Levitz for 30 years.

Levitz, the son of a kosher butcher and a homemaker from Forest Park, knew he wanted to be a judge when he was 13 years old.

He was fascinated with the courtroom. As a teen-ager, he spent his summers taking the streetcar to the city courthouse, where he would watch criminal cases.

At the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Levitz started off as a sociology major, but switched when he learned he would have to take statistics.

"I said, `What major can I take without having to take math?' " Levitz recalled. "They said, `Well, you don't need math if you're a theater major.' I said, `OK, great. I'll be a theater major.' "

It was a fortuitous move. That's how Levitz met Dale Roth, the fellow theater major who would become his wife. It was also how he refined the presentation skills that helped make him a captivating trial attorney after he graduated from the University of Baltimore School of Law.

From the time he was a prosecutor, Levitz was known for his sensitivity toward people involved in cases.

He came to the Baltimore County state's attorney's office from the city to revamp the way prosecutors dealt with sex crimes, making it easier for rape victims. The process he set up has been copied throughout the state.

As a judge, Levitz has focused on the emotional toll cases can take on jurors - something many in the judicial system can forget, said Donald Zaremba, Baltimore County's deputy public defender.

After the harrowing trial in the murder of young Rita Fisher, Zaremba said, Levitz was attentive to how jurors were handling the testimony with which they had been bombarded.

"He certainly knows what issues are going on in the courtroom, both in terms of litigation and emotion," Zaremba said.

With that background, many were not surprised by Levitz's comments in the Starliper case. But some death penalty opponents found his decision disturbing because of the racial pattern found in the University of Maryland study.

State Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, a Baltimore Democrat, said she likes Levitz, who taught her bar review classes a decade ago, but said she was "floored" by his decision.

"I've been festering on this issue all day," Gladden said. "This is a white defendant killing two black guys, and their lives cumulatively don't deserve the death penalty. ... It's troubling."

But in court, Levitz gave several reasons for deciding against the death penalty. Race, he said, would not alter his decision or his empathy for the families of the victims and the defendant.

"I look at the cases I've been involved with and I just don't see race as an issue," Levitz said.

Sun staff writer Laura Loh contributed to this article.

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