Maryland inmate Steven H. Oken was put to death by lethal injection in Baltimore tonight, nearly 17 years after he brutally assaulted and killed a White Marsh college student and newlywed and two other women.

Oken's execution shortly after 9 p.m., the first in Maryland in six years, came just hours after Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) refused a request to commute the triple murderer's sentence to life without parole.

"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, a death penalty supporter, said in a statement. "My sympathies tonight lie with the families of all those involved in these heinous crimes."

Oken, 42, received his capital sentence for the November 1987 death of Dawn Marie Garvin, whom Oken sexually violated and then shot in the head in her Baltimore County apartment.

Two weeks later, Oken sexually assaulted and killed his sister-in-law, Patricia Hirt, before fleeing to Maine, where he then did the same thing to a young motel clerk named Lori Ward.

Garvin's husband and mother and relatives of the two other women Oken killed during the two-week rampage were among those expected to witness the execution inside the old Maryland penitentiary in downtown Baltimore.

Before the execution, demonstrators and counter-demonstrators gathered for hours outside the penitentiary's medieval-looking walls and turrets.

Death penalty opponents, who rallied around Oken despite the details of the murders and his undisputed guilt, lamented Ehrlich's refusal to intervene. "That would have been the humane thing to do and would have avoided the media circus" of the past week, said Cathy Knepper, the Maryland death penalty abolition coordinator for Amnesty International. "I'm thinking of the Romano and Oken families. This was all unnecessary and I can't imagine what it's put these two families through."

Ehrlich's refusal to grant clemency came as federal courts rejected defense lawyers last-minute legal appeals to try to save their client's life. The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond rejected a defense argument that executioners' plans to cut into Oken's skin to administer a lethal injection would be cruel and unconstitutional.

Earlier in the day, the Supreme Court rejected a separate petition that argued Oken had suffered from ineffective representation at his 1991 trial.

The Supreme Court's decision was the second time in as many days the justices had refused to delay the execution. Last night, the high court lifted a stay of execution in the case, reversing a federal appellate court that only hours earlier had sided with Oken and upheld the stay. At issue was whether Oken was denied due process when prison officials delayed providing his attorneys the lethal injection protocol.

After more than a decade of court appeals, lead defense attorney Fred Bennett said his client was "ready to die."