Oken's case a challenge in debate on death penalty

Sun Staff

Next week's scheduled execution of Steven Oken presents a difficult case for all but the most resolute opponents of the death penalty.

He fits none of the categories for which recent constitutional challenges have been mounted against the death penalty: He is not poor, black, and was not a minor at the time the crimes were committed. He admitted to the grisly 1987 murder of Dawn Garvin.

"This is definitely a poster boy," said Michael Rushford, president of the California-based pro-death penalty Criminal Justice Legal Foundation.

Rushford and other proponents of capital punishment hope the execution will signal that Maryland is ready to carry out death sentences, after six years of no executions.

That is exactly what death penalty opponents fear.

"Capital punishment has been propelled by the popularity of these cases," said Michael Stark, the Baltimore-Washington coordinator of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty.

As recently as two years ago, the state was observing an unofficial moratorium on executions.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening commuted the sentence of a condemned man to life in prison without parole, and, in the wake of commissioning a study into racial and other disparities in the use of the death penalty, said he would not sign death warrants.

More recently, the prosecution of Washington-area sniper Lee Boyd Malvo, who was 17 at the time of the shootings, prompted debate about the execution of people convicted of crimes committed as minors. Partly because Maryland law prohibits such executions, and a sentiment that Maryland's death penalty was ineffective, both sniper cases were tried first in Virginia.

But Oken's case presents none of those complications.

Stark said the state chooses to execute people such as Oken, and, a decade ago, John Thanos - white men who admitted responsibility for particularly heinous crimes - before other convicts to avoid the public uproar that accompanies less clear-cut capital punishment cases.

Such death-row inmates, along with even more high-profile ones such as serial killer Ted Bundy, executed in 1989 in Florida, help people who are on the fence about capital punishment feel more comfortable about executions, Stark said.

Legislators, such as state Sen. Nancy Jacobs, a Cecil and Harford County Republican, have used the families of Oken's victims to justify and promote the death penalty, Stark said.

The next in line for execution are African-Americans - underscoring the conclusions of University of Maryland criminologist Raymond Paternoster's analysis unveiled a year and a half ago.

"These cases will be tougher, and prosecutors know that," said Jane Henderson of the Quixote Center in Hyattsville, which is anti-capital punishment. "There was a political calculus to executing Oken first."

Baltimore County Assistant State's Attorney S. Ann Brobst, Oken's prosecutor, says the contention that Oken is going first because he's white and least contentious is "absolute and utter nonsense."

She said prosecutors sought the death warrant because his appeals appeared to be over, plain and simple. Despite the fact that Oken has been on death row for 13 years, he's been on more of a "fast track" than others, such as Vernon Evans, sentenced in 1984, because neither Oken's sentence nor his finding of guilt has been overturned.

Evans has been resentenced, and each time that happens, it's like starting over, she said. After Oken, it may be a while before Baltimore County is able to get another death warrant signed, Brobst said.

Wesley Baker has an argument scheduled before the Court of Appeals in September. A black man, he was also convicted in Baltimore County.

Glenn Ivey, state's attorney for Prince George's County, said he is likely to seek a death warrant for Heath William Burch, also black, after the Oken case "is resolved, especially if that is resolved finally." Oken had raised legal issues that, if successful, might have affected Burch, he said.

Maryland's first execution since the reinstatement of the death penalty was in 1994, when Thanos volunteered. Within four years, two black killers of white victims, Flint Gregory Hunt in 1997, and Tyrone Gilliam in 1998, were executed. By then, questions of racial and jurisdictional disparities had been raised.

Then in 2000 came Eugene Colvin-el, a black man. Shortly before Colvin-el's scheduled execution, Glendening concluded the case against him was insufficient, and he commuted the sentence to life without parole.

Glendening also commissioned the analysis by Paternoster to examine whether capital punishment was being administered fairly.

Two years later, Glendening blocked the execution of Baker and called an end to executions while the study was under way, effectively delaying death warrants for three other black men.

When the study was completed, it found that defendants accused of slaying white victims were most likely to be charged with capital murder, and if convicted, more likely to be sentenced to die than people charged with killing minorities.

The report said that blacks who kill whites are 2 1/2 times more likely to be sentenced to death than are whites who kill whites and 3 1/2 times more likely to be executed than blacks who kill blacks.

It found a discrepancy among jurisdictions in seeking the death penalty, with Baltimore County as Maryland's leader in seeking and obtaining death sentences. Oken fits the pattern in that his case comes from Baltimore County and his victim was white.

When Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. took office in January last year, he said he would not back a moratorium on executions, raising the possibility that Maryland could see several executions.

Richard Dieter, executive director of the anti-capital punishment Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, said he hopes Oken's case moves Maryland "not to accelerate executions but to address the problems."

Bills in the Maryland legislature to impose a moratorium on executions or study discrepancies among jurisdictions in the application of the death penalty have failed.

Currently, all eight condemned men death row are convicted of killing white victims. Five of the men are black.

"Saying look, we executed somebody who happens to be white before we executed somebody who happens to be black is ridiculous. The numbers are the numbers," said Stuart J. Robinson, one of Baker's lawyers.

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