With Maryland's first execution since 1998 scheduled in less than three weeks, opponents of capital punishment are mobilizing once again, loudly and passionately decrying how Steven Oken's life seems likely to end.
Outside the medieval-looking edifice of the former Maryland penitentiary, where murderers once were hanged and where the next execution could take place as early as June 14, a parade of protesters demanded yesterday that officials reconsider the punishment -- or ensure that it be carried out in a humane and constitutional way.
Hours later, in a warm church basement in Takoma Park, a town meeting that sometimes bordered on revival rally was even more strident. "When the state of Maryland executes . . . when they kill, they will be doing it in your name," said Diann Rust-Tierney, director of the ACLU's Capital Punishment Project.
"Do you stand for answering violence with violence?" she asked.
"No," roared the audience.
The voices speaking out yesterday included a lawyer and an emergency room physician. A minister and state delegate. Former Illinois and California death row inmates and the brother-in-law of the last person killed by injection in Maryland. And Oken's mother herself, who quietly and briefly during the afternoon news conference asked what the state had to gain "by killing more people."
But those who lead the fight against capital punishment in Maryland acknowledge that Oken's can be a difficult case with which to push their cause forward.
That's not just because of the brutal crimes he committed, but because Oken can lay claim to few of the issues -- of race, retardation or representation -- that have swayed the courts or public opinion in recent years.
"There's a temptation to approach it as if, because Oken is white, the issues don't apply," said Jane Henderson of the Quixote Center, a Maryland-based social justice organization. "In a time when everyone is talking about the problems of the death penalty, there's a certain calculated way in which people have moved forward with it."
Another obstacle for Oken is the death penalty proponent in the governor's mansion, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. With Oken's appeals all but exhausted in the 13 years since his conviction, he has turned to Ehrlich (R) for clemency.
The governor said yesterday that the case "fits the usual pattern -- many, many years between the crime and the ultimate date of execution."
Ehrlich said he would not wade into the debate over lethal injection. "I am not going to ponder the legality of methods of execution," he said.
At the Baltimore news conference, the medical and legal professionals focused on whether one of the three chemicals used in the procedure would cause Oken great suffering -- particularly if his execution is "botched" similarly to the 1998 lethal injection of Tyrone X. Gilliam, charged attorney Jerome Nickerson.
"It was obvious to everyone in the execution chamber," said Nickerson, who represented Gilliam and witnessed his death. The intravenous line through which a barbiturate flowed to render the inmate unconscious "started dripping" at the start and by the end had pooled on the floor, he said. If Gilliam received too little sedation, then he felt and sensed and saw everything that followed with the final two drugs. "He's going to feel the suffocation. He's going to feel the heart attack," Nickerson said.
The family of Oken's victim in this case has stressed that she experienced far worse. Dawn Marie Garvin, a 20-year-old college student and newlywed, was sexually tortured and shot after Oken talked his way into her apartment in late 1987. Within two weeks, Oken killed his sister-in-law and, after fleeing to Maine, a young motel clerk there.
The trio of slayings, and the details that emerged about Garvin's death in particular, explain why his own attorney wrote in a recent motion that Oken was "an individual thoroughly despised by the polity."
That blunt and harsh assessment was alluded to at the Takoma Park gathering.
"The fact that Steven Oken is demonstrably guilty makes it appear that capital punishment has no flaws," said Michael Stark, of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty.
For this audience, nothing could be more demonstrably wrong.
Staff writer Matthew Mosk contributed to this report.