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For rabbi, stance on execution evolves

Pleas from Oken's parents reversed his support for capital punishment

By Julie Bykowicz

Sun Staff

June 6, 2004

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It was a speech like no other that Rabbi Rex Perlmeter had given -- delivered inside a Baptist church and pressing the argument that the death penalty is "killing the soul of this country."

When he finished his talk last week at Mount Hope Baptist Church in Northwest Baltimore, the rabbi walked over to the parents of Steven Oken -- a death-row inmate who could be executed as early as next week -- and wrapped his arms around them.

Then Perlmeter, senior rabbi of the 1,500-family Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, kissed Davida Oken and whispered in her ear, asking her forgiveness for ignoring her pleas for help on behalf of her son years ago.

"It meant a lot to me," she says. "For so many years, I felt very angry and upset that the rabbis wouldn't put out their hands to help."

Steven Oken is believed to be one of only a few Jewish inmates on any death row in the country. And his parents say they have long looked for support from a Jewish community that remains divided in its views on capital punishment.

When he was put on Maryland's death row in 1991, Oken's mother sought to connect him with the Aleph Institute, which provides religious material to Jewish prisoners across the country.

A member of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation for the previous 27 years, Davida Oken says she asked the synagogue for records on her son -- who had his bar mitzvah there -- to send to Aleph.

But she says that she was so upset with the response to her request that she withdrew her family's membership.

For years, Davida Oken says, the congregation leaders didn't lend her family emotional support or join her family's fight to save her son's life.

But when Rex Perlmeter arrived in 1996 as the new senior rabbi, the family wrote to him, thinking they would try again for help.

Perlmeter, now 45, says he remembers feeling uncomfortable when he received the Okens' request. He supported use of the death penalty against the most heinous of criminals. And he thought that Steven Oken, convicted of sexually assaulting and killing three women in 1987, fell into that category.

"I was very ambivalent," he says now. "I felt sadness for their family, but I also felt that justice was being served."

He passed the note to another rabbi, but that, he says, marked the beginning of his evolution from favoring capital punishment in some cases to opposing it altogether.

"Over the years, thinking about how I had failed the Okens, sensing their pain, knowing that they could not get the help they asked for from their community, that influenced me," Perlmeter says.

As Perlmeter was examining his views, Davida Oken says she found help in other places. The Jewish Big Brother/Big Sister League of Baltimore sent someone to visit Oken every month and delivered kosher foods so he could observe Passover, says Mark Levine, institutional coordinator for the league.

"We want to make sure that the inmate is not forgotten," he says. "And we do what we can to maintain their connection to the religion."

It's a religion that -- unlike Catholicism, for example, which has taken a strong stance against capital punishment -- includes varied views of state executions.

The Reform Jewish Movement, which includes Baltimore Hebrew and 900 other synagogues, has formally opposed the death penalty since 1959. But the Baltimore Jewish Council, a government and community relations agency for the area's synagogues and rabbinical organizations, does not oppose capital punishment.

"Judaism does not equate state-sponsored execution with murder, and we would not support an outright ban on capital punishment," says David Conn, director of government relations and public policy for the council. He adds that the council would like to see various reforms to make the death penalty more equitably applied.

"Our religion values life so highly that we insist on a criminal justice system that practices the utmost caution in carrying out the ultimate punishment," he says.

Even within synagogues, members and clergy have differing opinions: Perlmeter had long supported capital punishment, but another rabbi in the congregation, Robert Nosanchuk, has always opposed it. Because of his views, Nosanchuk has been counseling the Oken family for about two years.

Disparate opinions

"Jewish tradition cautions that more death does not equal fairness and justice," Nosanchuk says. But he adds that Jewish texts offer disparate opinions about capital punishment, and that the Torah also says that when one is guilty of murder, one should be put to death.

It was that passage, Perlmeter says, combined with U.S. law's approval of the death penalty and society's -- and his own -- embrace of vengeance that were at the root of his belief in capital punishment.

He traces his feelings toward vengeance to a miniseries on the Holocaust that he saw as a boy. He recalls that the miniseries followed a fictitious Jewish family through World War II. All but one member of the family was killed by Nazis, and, in one scene, the surviving relative plunges an ax into a guard at a concentration camp as he escapes it.

"In that one moment, I wanted with all of my being to be the one planting the ax into the back of that monster," he says. "And that's when I recognized within myself my own capacity for vengeance. It fed into my support for the death penalty."

About the time he received the note from the Okens, Perlmeter says, he began thinking deeply about the reasons behind capital punishment.

A year ago, he says, he confronted what he calls the ultimate paradigm for any Jew considering the death penalty: Adolf Eichmann.

Eichmann, who was in charge of the "Final Solution" to exterminate the Jews, is the only man to ever face capital punishment in Israel.

"As long as I believed that it was an appropriate punishment for him, how could I feel that it was inappropriate for everyone else?" Perlmeter says. But he says he came to realize that "his death did not effectively avenge the death of 6 million Jews."

Three murders

Steven Oken was sentenced to die for the 1987 murder of White Marsh newlywed Dawn Marie Garvin, whom he raped and shot before sexually assaulting and killing his sister-in-law, Patricia Hirt, and fleeing to Maine. There, he raped and fatally shot motel clerk Lori Ward. Still bloody, he was captured by Maine authorities a day later.

Judge John G. Turnbull II signed a warrant in April for Oken's execution. Oken's lawyer, Fred Warren Bennett, has asked the Maryland Court of Appeals to delay the execution, set for the week of June 14.

Yesterday, the Okens were among the 40 death-penalty opponents who gathered in an East Baltimore park to protest the impending execution. They marched a half-mile in the rain to Supermax, the maximum-security prison on Madison Street where Oken is being held.

Davida Oken thanked the protesters -- a mix of college students, city residents and activists from the Washington, D.C., area -- for showing support for her son yesterday.

The execution is scheduled to take place in the hospital of the Metropolitan Transition Center across from Supermax. Earlier yesterday, members of the news media were shown the gray-walled room that was last used for an execution in 1998.

When Perlmeter spoke before the death penalty opponents gathered last week at Mount Hope Baptist, he said it was not up to him to forgive Oken for his crimes. "That is between Steven, his victims' families, and his God," he said.

About the passage in the Torah that calls for death when one has killed another, Perlmeter said: "God knew we needed the threat of death, but God knows we should have outgrown it by now."

Listening from a pew in the rear of the church, David and Davida Oken, who were sitting with Rabbi Nosanchuk, nodded slightly and held hands.

Sun staff writer Gus G. Sentementes and the Associated Press contributed to this report.