Just after 6 p.m. -- three hours before the man who brutally raped, tortured, then murdered his sister was scheduled to die -- a hoarse Fred Romano drove up to the curb on Madison Street.

Days of shouting in favor of death for convicted murderer Steven H. Oken had cost him his voice, but the messages scrawled on the tinted windows of his silver Jeep Grand Cherokee said everything:




And across the back windshield -- beneath a teddy bear perched on the roof to signify the sexual torture Romano's sister endured -- were the words:



Nearly 17 years had passed since Romano last saw his sister as she headed out of her Baltimore County apartment to walk her dog. Somewhere along the way, she encountered Oken. Thirteen years had passed since Oken was sentenced to die for her murder. Finally, after another last-minute reprieve was struck down by the Supreme Court, Oken was assigned a time and date of execution: 9 p.m. Thursday.

Romano wasn't going to miss it.

His wife, Vicki, got out of the car with a cooler and a pile of signs she placed on nearby benches. They stood at the edge of Maryland's Supermax prison, a sprawling sea of brick buildings surrounded by a double circle of barbed wire.

As Romano held up a sign urging death for Oken, he sighed heavily, took a drag on his cigarette and nervously tapped his right foot. "Waiting. I'm waiting," he said. "When he's dead, I'll have peace. Dawn will have peace. My dad will have peace." Romano paused. "We'll all have peace."

Often when the Romano family had lobbied for capital punishment in Annapolis, the family felt outnumbered by death penalty opponents. This time, the honking cars and chanting crowd suggested that they had plenty of support.

At one point, a stranger walked up to Romano's father, also Fred, and embraced him.

"Give me a hug," Jeannette Edmonds of Baltimore said to him. "I'm so sorry. I had to be here. God bless you."

Two blocks away, two women carried a sign that said: "No more killing; Stop executions." They were walking to the other side of the prison, where police officers had told death penalty opponents to wait.

"It's sad. This execution won't bring healing to the families. Only forgiveness brings healing," said Susan Crane, 60, of Baltimore.

Art Laffin of Northwest Washington stood among the protesters, his heart with the families of Oken's victims as well as with the death penalty opponents. He said his brother, an associate director of a homeless center in Hartford, Conn., was stabbed to death outside the center five years ago.

"How do you break the cycle of violence with more violence?" he said, adding: "My . . . prayers go out to the Garvin and Romano families. I know the terrible anguish they've experienced."

Down the street, Betty Romano, Dawn Garvin's mother, was escorted soon after into the prison to witness Oken's death.

The elder Fred Romano said he decided against watching the execution so that he could offer support to his son and daughter-in-law as they stood outside.

The father acknowledged that he was curious what Oken's final words would be.

"I'd like him to say, 'I'm sorry,' in his own words," he said. "Not his attorney. Not his psychiatrist. I'd like him to say, 'I'm sorry,' for what he did. All he's ever done is snicker, laugh and mock us."

The elder Fred Romano would soon learn that Oken did not make a final statement but composed a two-page letter to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) expressing his contrition.

The younger Fred Romano stood near his father, waiting nervously for news of the execution. "I want this over with," he said at 9:18, 18 minutes after the procedure was scheduled to begin.

Another 20 minutes passed before he grabbed the bullhorn and announced to the crowd that Oken was dead. Amid the cheering, someone asked him what life would be like now.

"That's what we'll find out tomorrow morning," he said. "This starts the day."

He continued: "I just thank God that it has finally come to an end. The burden has been lifted. Oken is dead."

Down the street, Stephanie Gibson, 49, a professor at the University of Baltimore, approached the microphone in front of about 80 death penalty opponents and delivered the news.

"I've just been told that Steven Oken was executed tonight," she said.

"Boo on Maryland," shouted a woman in the back of the crowd. "Boo on Maryland. Shame on our governor."

The crowd fell quiet.

Staff writer Elizabeth Williamson contributed to this report.

While awaiting Oken's execution, Fred Romano, center, is comforted by supporters.Supporters of Oken's execution made signs while they waited. They said they were celebrating justice, not the death penalty. Fred Romano, center, brother of murder victim Dawn Marie Garvin, and Monique Klapka, to the right, daughter of another of Steven H. Oken's victims, are joined by loved ones outside a prison in Baltimore after learning of Oken's execution.Brendan Walsh, left, and Terry Fitzgerald, both of Baltimore, protest the execution.