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Md. puts Oken to death

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.

Outside the prison, supporters and opponents of the death penalty gathered in separate groups. Shortly before 9 p.m., chanting arose from the group of about 60 supporters, who included victims' relatives: "turn on the juice."

When word spread that Oken was dead, several relatives huddled briefly and said a prayer, and others broke out in cheers.

"The burden has been lifted. Oken's dead," said Fred A. Romano, Garvin's brother. He taunted Bennett through a bullhorn: "How can you sleep? How much money did you make?"

Down the street, many of the 40 death penalty opponents assembled cried when they learned that Oken had been put to death. Those who were carrying lit candles blew them out.

"Tonight the state extinguished a life, but it ignited a flame in each of us. I want you to walk away from this event tonight stronger," said Sedira Banan, 19, of the American University Campaign to End the Death Penalty.

The execution - the 84th in Maryland's history, its fourth since resuming executions in 1994 after the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976 and its first since 1998 - occurred in amid an intensifying statewide debate over capital punishment. Over the past two years, Ehrlich's predecessor, Parris N. Glendening, had imposed a temporary moratorium on the death penalty, state Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. called for abolishing it, and a state-commissioned report questioned the fairness of the state's use of the sentence.

Oken's case, which included two previous death warrants that were not acted upon because of appeals, grew closely entwined with the larger debate. His parents became vocal critics of the death penalty, while Garvin's family became outspoken advocates of it.

Death penalty critics noted that Oken's case fit what they said was a disturbing trend in Maryland: like a disproportionate number of death row inmates, Oken was sentenced in Baltimore County, and his victims were white. But advocates of the death penalty noted that, as a middle-class white man, he could hardly be portrayed as a victim of prosecutorial bias.

Steven Oken admitted to his crimes. He sexually assaulted and shot to death three women in November 1987. Then 25 years old and married, Oken gave few hints that he would commit such crimes, his family has said.

In a 2001 article in the Baltimore Jewish Times, Oken talked of his drug and alcohol abuse, personal problems and depression, and said, "I can't point to one thing that made this happen ... I just didn't want to deal with everything."

Adopted at birth by David and Davida Oken, Steven was raised in a Jewish family with a younger brother and sister.

Oken's mother, Davida Oken, said signs of trouble emerged in 1986. She said her son had been abusing alcohol and drugs, including cocaine, marijuana and prescription medications that he had stolen from his father's pharmacy.

On the night of Nov. 1, 1987, Oken knocked on doors in a White Marsh neighborhood near where he and his wife lived, trying to convince residents to let him inside by posing alternately as a stranded motorist and a doctor.

According to court testimony, he knocked on 20-year-old Dawn Garvin's door. She let Oken inside. Garvin's father, Frederick J. Romano, found his only daughter's body early the next day.

Two weeks later, Oken attacked his wife's older sister, Patricia Hirt, inside his White Marsh townhouse, where the 43-year-old Hirt had come to return a camera.

Two days later, he was arrested in Maine - but not before he sexually assaulted and fatally shot motel clerk Lori Ward.

Suzanne Tsintolas, Ward's older sister and a Rockville lawyer, said a few days ago that the execution would "help to maintain my faith in our judicial system."

"My sister was ripped away from our family, and we can't get her back. But at least this evil person won't be walking among us."

Outside the prison after the execution, the crowd of death penalty advocates lingered to celebrate. As the hearse containing Oken's remains pulled away at 10:25 p.m., the crowd chanted "na, na, na, na, hey, hey, hey goodbye."

Taking in the scene, Fred J. Romano, Garvin's father, said "I'm feeling great right now. I feel finally justice has been done. And I just want to say this: I cradled my dead daughter's body in my arms when I found her. I attempted to give her CPR. The way this guy died, he died too easy. He had no right to die in dignity, no right at all."

Sun staff writers Andrew A. Green, Lynn Anderson, and Laurie Willis contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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