The state's highest court postponed yesterday the execution of Steven H. Oken, saying it wants time to hear arguments on one of the death row inmate's recent appeals.
Oken, 41, was scheduled to die by lethal injection the week of March 17 for the 1987 rape and murder of Dawn Marie Garvin, a 20-year-old White Marsh newlywed. Yesterday's stay, granted by the Court of Appeals in a 5-2 decision, will give defenders until at least May to convince the court that Oken should not be put to death, said his attorney, Fred W. Bennett.
"We're very pleased," said Katy O'Donnell, chief of the Maryland Public Defender's capital defense division. She called Oken's appeal "extremely significant, with wide-reaching ramifications."
Fred Romano, Garvin's brother, said his family was disgusted by the delay. They have been pushing for Oken's death since 1991, when he was convicted and sentenced.
"It just makes me want to fight harder," Romano said.
Oken also was convicted of killing his sister-in-law, Patricia Hirt, in Maryland and motel clerk Lori Ward in Maine.
Since a Baltimore County circuit judge signed Oken's most recent death warrant last month, the case has been at the forefront of a growing debate in Annapolis over the state's capital punishment law.
Oken was scheduled to become the first person to be executed in Maryland since 1998 and the first under Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who lifted the state's death penalty moratorium when he took office last month.
Death penalty opponents had increased efforts in recent weeks to reinstate a moratorium and scrap the state's capital punishment law.
Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., whose office is responsible for upholding Maryland laws, called publicly for an end to capital punishment. Del. Salima S. Marriott, a Baltimore Democrat, sponsored legislation to extend the moratorium while a new panel analyzes a recent University of Maryland study on the state's death penalty law. Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele got Ehrlich to give him the go-ahead to begin a new study, even though the governor said he would not reinstate the moratorium.
Death penalty advocates also mobilized, criticizing Curran for his stance and introducing legislation that would tighten the capital punishment law.
But with the Court of Appeals considering at least two death penalty cases, it appears the state's judiciary might have the greatest impact on the debate.
The arguments in Oken's case that the court wants to hear are similar to those it heard last week from lawyers for Courtney Bryant, 20, who was sentenced to death last year for killing James Stambaugh Jr., 21, manager of a Hunt Valley Burger King, during a robbery in 2000.
Lawyers for Oken and Bryant say Maryland's death penalty law is unconstitutional because of the way it directs a judge or jury to decide between a death sentence or life in prison.
A defendant can be given the death penalty if convicted of first-degree murder, if there is an "aggravating factor," such as another felony committed with the killing, and if aggravating factors outweigh "mitigating factors," such as a defendant's young age or difficult childhood, that argue against a death sentence.
The first two decisions - the first-degree murder conviction and the existence of at least one aggravating factor - have to be found beyond a reasonable doubt, the highest standard of proof. But whether aggravating factors outweigh mitigating factors now has only the slightest burden of proof, a "preponderance of the evidence."
Defense attorneys say that decision should be subject to the same high burden of proof as the first two, and that a recent Supreme Court ruling, Ring vs. Arizona, backs their position.
That the Court of Appeals decided to examine Oken's case, even though it heard similar arguments in the Bryant case, seems to indicate that it is taking the defense position seriously.
"It could be argued that this bodes well for Mr. Bryant in his case, although it's hard to predict what the Court of Appeals will do," Bennett said.
Maryland's high court will receive another Oken appeal soon, this one linked to the recent University of Maryland death penalty study.
Bennett filed a motion Monday in Baltimore County Circuit Court saying that the study, which found geographic and racial disparities in the law's application, proved that the state's capital punishment law was unconstitutional. Judge Dana M. Levitz denied the motion yesterday without a hearing, in effect handing the issue to the Court of Appeals.