After a furious legal battle that ended only in his final hour, Steven Howard Oken wrote a letter expressing remorse, smiled with a priest and submitted to his death by lethal injection last night for the 1987 rape and murder of a White Marsh newlywed.

Maryland's execution of Oken, a Baltimore County pharmacist's son, at 9:18 p.m., brought chants of "justice has been served" from a crowd of 60 people gathered with relatives of murder victim Dawn Marie Garvin outside the old state penitentiary on East Madison Street in Baltimore.

Garvin's mother, Betty Romano, was among four relatives of the victims who witnessed the execution.

"My family has been put through hell for 17 years," she said. "Steven Oken has been brought to justice. The only problem is that Steven Oken died in peace, and my daughter didn't have the luxury to die in peace like I saw him die tonight."

Oken, 42, sexually assaulted and killed three women - two in Maryland, one in Maine - in as many weeks in the fall of 1987.

His legal team filed appeal after appeal over the years. But last night, witnesses said, he was anything but combative. He chuckled and chatted with a Roman Catholic priest in the death chamber and did not resist when the procedure began.

At 9:11 p.m., two minutes after the curtain snapped back, signaling that Oken had begun receiving the deadly chemicals, his large midsection heaved two or three times, and then he appeared to stop breathing.

Oken's attorney, Fred Warren Bennett said he last saw his client at 7:30 p.m., and at that point, "he pretty much knew ... there was nothing left," the lawyer said, crying as he recalled the conversation. "I told him he wouldn't be alone. We'd all be there with him."

Speaking of Oken, who he said was not only his client but a friend, Bennett said, "He was a good man. He was not a monster. He was sick. He was mentally ill. You should not kill mentally ill people."

On Wednesday, Oken appeared to have won at least another month of life when a federal appeals court upheld a stay to obtain more information about the state's execution procedures. But that stay was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court later that day.

A flurry of additional court appeals by Oken's attorneys came to naught yesterday, with one Supreme Court rejection arriving at 8:32 p.m., less than an hour before his death. By then, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., facing his first clemency appeal from a death row inmate since lifting an unofficial death penalty moratorium when he took office last year, had denied Oken's request.

"After a thorough review of the request for clemency, the facts pertinent to the petition, and the judicial opinions regarding this case, I decline to intervene," Ehrlich said in a statement released by his office at 6 p.m. "My sympathies tonight lie with the families of all those involved in these heinous crimes."

Bennett said Oken wrote a letter before he died, addressed to Ehrlich after the governor had denied him clemency. In the letter, Bennett said, "He talked about how sorry he was. It was sent to show remorse."

Bennett said he will ask Oken's family to make it public today.

Oken's last meal was a chicken patty, with potatoes and gravy, green beans, marble cake, milk and fruit punch. "It was the standard meal that happened to come up in the meal rotation for today," said prison spokesman Mark A. Vernarelli.

Oken's parents said good-bye to their son and went home at 3 p.m., said Rabbi Jacob Max, who counseled the condemned man for about 90 minutes yesterday afternoon.

"He was very much at peace," Max said. When Max left Oken's holding cell at 4:30 p.m., a second rabbi, Moshe Davids, talked with him for another 30 minutes. Both rabbis witnessed Oken die from behind one-way glass.

The man who went into prison as a relatively fit 25-year-old had become a much heavier middle-age man with close-cropped white-ish hair. He wore a gray jumpsuit he was given for the execution in place of his usual orange one.

Oken was convicted in 1991 in the 1987 rape and murder of Garvin, whom he attacked after tricking her into letting him into her White Marsh apartment to use the phone. Two weeks later, he sexually assaulted and killed his wife's older sister, Patricia Antoinette Hirt, in White Marsh, and fled to Maine, where he sexually assaulted and killed a college student and motel clerk, Lori Elizabeth Ward.