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, 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 chamber and did not resist when the procedure began.
Oken's attorney, Fred Warren Bennett said that Oken was "more composed than I was. His chest went up and down, and then he stopped breathing."
Bennett said his client wrote a letter before he died, addressed to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., 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.
Shortly before the execution, Bennett said he last saw Oken 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 his 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."
Outside the prison, 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, goodbye."
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, Ehrlich, 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."
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 said goodbye to his parents at 3 p.m., after spending two hours with them, 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.
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 two 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, who shouted taunts at Bennett, Oken's lawyer, with a bullhorn.
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.
One day after being told he had another month to live, Oken was escorted from his cell in the high-security Supermax prison to the second floor of the old penitentiary. The heavyset 42-year-old with graying hair changed out of an orange jumpsuit into a gray one that had been laid out weeks before on a cot inside a cell at the old prison.
The final hours of Oken's life were spent in a gray cell with a large window. A blanket had been hung over part of a hallway to discourage correctional employees and others from staring at Oken.
A thick red-painted line kept Oken's final visitors about three feet back from the cell. No one, including his family, was allowed to get any closer than that.
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.
After the execution, 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. He should have been hung. I would have liked to have seen him dancing at the end of a rope," he said.
Sun staff writers Alec MacGillis, Lynn Anderson, and Laurie Willis contributed to this article.