"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.