Steven Oken, scheduled to die next month for the murder in 1987 of a White Marsh newlywed, won a reprieve yesterday when the state's highest court postponed his execution indefinitely in a ruling that could also delay the executions of three other death row inmates.
The Maryland Court of Appeals granted a stay of execution by a 6-1 vote, issuing a one-page order that gives Oken's lawyers additional time to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. In a stinging dissent, one judge recommended abolishing the death penalty because "it simply is not worth the aggravation."
The court ruling was welcomed by death penalty opponents, but it disappointed prosecutors and relatives of the three women who were sexually assaulted and shot to death by Oken.
"I'm very upset. It's just prolonging the agony," said Betty Romano, whose 20-year-old daughter, Dawn Marie Garvin, was killed by Oken.
Romano, a secretary, said she had to leave work early yesterday because she became ill when she heard about the decision. Yesterday was her 37th wedding anniversary, she said.
"I don't know how much more a family can take," she said.
Michael Stark, a spokesman for the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, said that he hopes the ruling will increase calls to halt executions in Maryland.
"I feel very happy that we've dodged this bullet at this point," Stark said.
Oken, who turned 40 last week, would have been the first of the 13 inmates on Maryland's death row to be executed since 1998.
He was described in Judge Dale R. Cathell's dissenting opinion yesterday as a "poster man for the death penalty."
Oken was sentenced to death by a Baltimore County jury in 1991 for killing Garvin in November 1987. He claimed to have amnesia when apprehended, but regained his memory after he was convicted of Garvin's murder. At his sentencing, defense therapists testified that he suffered from a rare case of sexual sadism.
In separate trials, he was sentenced to life without parole for killing his sister-in-law, Patricia A. Hirt, two weeks after the Garvin murder; Oken also was given a life sentence in Maine for killing Lori E. Ward, a college student.
Assistant State's Attorney S. Ann Brobst, who prosecuted Oken, called the families of all three victims yesterday to alert them to the ruling.
"I just don't know how many times you can pick up the phone and give these victims' families news like this," she said.
The decision yesterday prohibits state officials from carrying out the death warrant signed Jan. 15 by Baltimore County Circuit Chief Judge John G. Turnbull II until the Supreme Court rules on Oken's appeal.
State Assistant Attorney General Gary Bair, head of the criminal appeals division, said it could be several months before the Supreme Court rules on Oken's case.
He said that while Oken's appeal is before the Supreme Court, prosecutors are unlikely to seek execution warrants for the three other death row inmates who have nearly exhausted their appeals: Wesley Baker, Anthony Grandison and Vernon Evans.
Oken's lawyer said the ruling gives him the time he needs to ensure Oken isn't wrongly executed.
"Steven Oken is elated," said the lawyer, Fred W. Bennett.
The ruling comes two months after the Court of Appeals rejected by a 4-3 vote an appeal by Bennett based on arguments that Maryland's death statute is illegal because its sentencing requirements are similar to those in a New Jersey hate crimes statute recently struck down by the Supreme Court in Apprendi vs. New Jersey.
Bennett said that he will use Apprendi when he files a petition with the Supreme Court by April 4. He said he will argue that when the court rules in an Arizona death penalty case this year, it should use the standards it set out in Apprendi to strike down both Arizona's death statute and Maryland's.
The Supreme Court agreed Jan. 11 to review Arizona vs. Ring, a case that focused on the fairness of Arizona's requirement that judges make specific findings when they sentence someone to death.
The Court of Appeals issued no majority opinion with its order yesterday. But a concurring opinion signed by Judges Alan M. Wilner and Glenn T. Harrell Jr. said that while Oken's appeal has no "substantive merit," there is no way to know how the Supreme Court will decide it.
But in his 15-page dissent, Cathell said the General Assembly should abolish the death penalty because "obstructive tactics" by opponents are lengthening the appeals process, raising costs and tarnishing the reputation of the legal system.
Cathell wrote that Oken should have sought the stay of execution directly from the Supreme Court and that he has had his share of appeals - including four trial court reviews, four Court of Appeals reviews, two federal appeals and three previous appeals to the Supreme Court.
"After 15 years, there comes a point, even in death penalty cases, when judges should say that enough is enough," Cathell said.