Maryland Executes Oken
1987 Rampage in 2 States Left 3 Women Dead
By Susan Levine
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 18, 2004; Page A01
BALTIMORE, June 17 -- Steven Howard Oken, the Maryland inmate whom a prosecutor once called a "poster boy" for capital punishment, was put to death shortly after 9 p.m. Thursday for the murder of a young Baltimore County college student and newlywed nearly a generation ago.
A trio of chemicals -- color-coded red, green and blue by a team of hidden executioners -- was pumped into Oken's veins starting at 9:09 p.m. Within minutes, the lethal injection rendered him unconscious, paralyzed his lungs and, finally, stopped his heart. Witnesses said his face turned ashen as the solution started to flow, but there apparently were no complications.
It was the first capital sentence carried out by the state since 1998 and came only after the U.S. Supreme Court lifted a stay of execution late Wednesday.
Observing the moment inside the old Maryland penitentiary in downtown Baltimore were not just Dawn Marie Garvin's husband and mother but relatives of the two other women he sexually assaulted and fatally shot during a two-week rampage from Maryland to Maine in November 1987.
"I want to thank God. This is finally over," said Betty Romano, Garvin's mother. "The only problem is Steven Oken died in peace. My daughter didn't have the luxury to die in peace, as I saw Steven Oken die tonight."
Oken's former wife, Phyllis Hirt Ryan, whose sister was killed by Oken, was among the witnesses. "After 17 years of torture, her nemesis is gone," said her husband, Mark Ryan. "She wanted to see justice done for her fallen sister."
Outside the prison, in the shadows of its medieval-looking walls and turrets, demonstrators and counter-demonstrators gathered for hours, some hoisting posters, some holding candles in a scene alternately raucous and somber. At the center of the crowd of death penalty supporters stood Garvin's father and brother.
"I feel good right now. I feel very good right now," said her father, Fred Romano Sr., who had waited through years of legal appeals for Oken to die. "I thought for a while he would outlive me."
David and Davida Oken, who had maintained as tireless a campaign to save their son as the Romanos had to see him put to death, were not at the prison Thursday night.
With the window rapidly closing on his life, the 42-year-old Oken had spent the day meeting with two rabbis, his parents and sister and his attorneys, whose final efforts to find other legal issues to save their client were rebuffed by three federal courts. The Supreme Court refused another petition in which the prisoner contended that he had suffered from ineffective representation at his 1991 trial. Word on his final, failed appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit came just 19 minutes before the execution was set to begin at 9 p.m.
"The system has failed," said attorney Fred Bennett, who has represented Oken for more than decade. "It's broken. It cannot be repaired."
Bennett remained with this client until 7:30 p.m., giving him a hug through the cell bars, and witnessed the execution.
"I said: 'You are not alone. You will not stand alone. I will be with you till the last breath of your life.' And I was," Bennett recounted in a choked voice.
One of Oken's last hopes had been Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), whom he had asked to commute the capital sentence to life without parole. At 5:08 p.m., Ehrlich's office faxed the defense a three-paragraph statement announcing that the governor had denied the request.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Betty Romano, whose daughter was killed by Steven Oken, walks past Oken's lead attorney, Fred Bennett, after the execution. "The system has failed," Bennett said.
(Michael Lutzky -- The Washington Post)
_____From The Post_____
Stay of Execution Upheld in Md. Murder Case (The Washington Post, Jun 16, 2004)
17-Year Wait for Justice Leaves Family Anguished and Broken (The Washington Post, Jun 14, 2004)
Execution Method Debated in Md. (The Washington Post, Jun 9, 2004)
Md. Killer Set for Execution After High Court Rebuff (The Washington Post, Apr 27, 2004)
Ruling Allows Executions to Resume in Md. (The Washington Post, Nov 18, 2003)
Murderer on Death Row Loses Final Md. Appeal (The Washington Post, Jan 5, 2002)
Oken Murder Case: Appellate attorney Richard Rosenbaum discussed the the case of convicted murderer Stephen Howard Oken.