Her father unloads the plastic bag of photos on a kitchen table and begins picking out some of his favorites. Dawn in her Troop 1004 Brownie uniform. Dawn in a Shirley Temple dance pose. He searches her face, wondering what might have been.

Her mother retrieves the hatbox she keeps on the high shelf of a back closet and carefully sorts through its contents. A baby's christening gown, a schoolgirl's favorite pair of beribboned socks. The shoes, white satin, that Dawn wore when she walked down the aisle. "This is what I've got left of my daughter," she said.

The mementos can bring comfort, and they can bring pain. Dawn Marie Garvin's parents want to remember the entwined memories, the occasions and accomplishments that made a young woman singularly special. But for almost 17 years -- in courtrooms, hearing rooms and demonstrations -- their focus has been elsewhere. Less on the happiness of her days than on the protracted aftermath of her death.

It was November 1987 when the 20-year-old college student and newlywed was murdered in the bedroom of her Baltimore County apartment. It was January 1991 when the perpetrator was tried, convicted and condemned. It was March 2002 when he was first scheduled to die, then March 2003. And now, sometime this week.

Garvin's parents, her brother, the high school sweetheart who so briefly was her husband, all were cautioned that the appeals to which Steven Oken was constitutionally entitled could last a decade. Yet hearing that is not the same as enduring it, especially as the decade comes and goes and one execution warrant is signed and stayed, and then another, and then yet another defense motion or petition is taken to the Supreme Court, regardless of past refusals to intervene.

"It's time to end this," said Garvin's mother, Betty Romano, meaning not just the waiting but the hurt, physical and emotional, exacted on her family.

"It's a tragedy," said Garvin's father, Fred Romano, who even now cries over the most innocuous reminiscences. "It's a tragedy, nothing less, what's happened to all of us."

Soon, the waiting could be over. Barring an at-the-wire intervention by the governor or a judge -- a federal court hearing this afternoon may give the defense another chance -- Maryland will carry out Oken's long-anticipated execution by midnight Friday. It would be the state's first sanctioned killing since 1998 and only its fourth since 1961.

Officials plan to escort Oken the last 40 feet of his life, direct him onto a padded stainless steel table, strap down his limbs and inject into his veins a lethal sequence of chemicals. Because he is a triple murderer -- he sexually assaulted and fatally shot two women in Maryland and a third in Maine -- Garvin's family will join other families witnessing the execution.

"There's a fine line between justice and vengeance," her husband said he believes, speaking carefully after years of public silence. Dawn "was the best, period," Keith Garvin explained. In difficult times, he still feels her presence.

For him, for the Romanos, Oken's execution will be justice.

Yet each acknowledges it has come at its own awful cost. Damaged health, damaged hearts. Nightmares and a marriage destroyed.

"A feeling of darkness," said Fred Romano, "that overshadows everything."

Never Wavering

Opponents consider the death penalty a horrible charade for grieving families, playing on their devastation and pain while offering a phantom hope of closure for their loved ones' loss.

Proponents say they fault not the punishment but the way politicians and courts have perverted its application, allowing interminable delays that indeed constitute cruel and unusual punishment -- for the survivors.

Not surprisingly, Ann Brobst is a defender of the system, though she says it can abuse those entrusting it most with their faith. A veteran prosecutor for the Baltimore County state's attorney, whose office brings more capital cases than any in Maryland, she has watched the Romanos try to hang tough. "I think they feel they owe this to Dawn," she said.

The courts have upheld the state throughout Oken's case, which makes the 13 years since his conviction all the more remarkable for prosecutors and all the more draining for the Romanos.

With few exceptions, the points raised by the defense have not tracked the broader issues that trouble many Americans: that an innocent man might be convicted and executed; that skin color, poverty and poor legal representation play significant roles in the system; and that some death row inmates were sent there despite mental retardation or mental illness. Such reasons have spared several condemned inmates since Oken arrived on Maryland's death row.

Garvin's family supported a capital sentence from the start, convinced that he deserved no less. They've never wavered, despite the strangers who told them how misguided they were, who warned that they would never heal until they could forgive. Garvin's 34-year-old brother repeats that he will "see it through to the end," and not for lack of resolve did Betty Romano put a big, hand-printed sign in her car's rear window last weekend, to make sure drivers near her Aberdeen apartment complex were aware of the pending execution.

The energetic honking -- of support, she presumed -- told her that plenty were well aware.

These days, her determination sounds embittered and weary, and she, like her husband, admits to wondering how different things might have been.

The wrenching what-ifs of that night no longer torment any of them. That's one consolation. Oken was a man out looking for a victim when he chanced upon their daughter, out walking her dog. Her new Navy husband had left a couple of hours earlier because he was due back in Virginia Beach. Her brother had stopped by the apartment in White Marsh to get some car keys and offered to wait around, even thought about spending the night. She said not to worry, she'd see him the next morning.

Instead, it was her father who saw her next, her body brutally violated, with two gunshot wounds to the head and a teddy bear left tucked under an arm. In a back room, Pepper was barking furiously. Like the frozen frame of a horror movie, the scene locked in her father's head. He'd walk through the door. See a shoe. See a sock. See his daughter.

Less than two weeks after this first murder, in a continuation of a drug- and alcohol-fueled rampage, Oken killed his sister-in-law and fled up the coast to New England. There he killed once more. And there Fred Romano's musings pick up, contemplating whether the life-without-parole sentence Oken received in Maine could have been, just maybe, enough.

"I almost think, if he had stayed in Maine, and stayed in prison for life in Maine, it might have been a lot better on my family," Romano said quietly.

He strokes a cup of coffee in the small condominium where he now is retired, a 60-year-old living with his mother. He and his wife are separated. After nearly four decades of marriage, they are floundering toward divorce.

Each blames the future largely on the anguish of the past. There was so much anger and depression to go around. Little could dissipate if they were still attending court hearings, still trying to keep their daughter's face and name in the public's mind, testifying in Annapolis before lawmakers who the Romanos felt paid no more attention than if they'd been pushing a new bug for official state insect.

Betty Romano recalls returning to the capital in 2001 as legislators debated a proposed execution moratorium. She expected to see other victims' families; at that point, more than a dozen men were on Maryland's death row. Three of them had, separately, stabbed and slain three elderly couples in their homes. Another had robbed and fatally shot a random target for a $10 payoff.

Where were all the other families? she asked herself. The neighbors, the friends? The victims being heralded were the killers themselves. Their families had shown up. So had an army of supporters, lobbying hard for their lives. A relative of one screamed that if his brother deserved to die, so did Dawn Garvin.

"It beats you to death" is Romano's perspective on the process. At 57, her health is poor -- she recently went to the doctor for another prescription to settle her nerves -- and her voice goes shaky at the prospect of Oken's execution again being delayed.

By now, her daughter has been dead nearly as long as she was alive. "I feel guilty because I can't even remember how old she would be," Romano confessed. "I have to calculate. You shouldn't have to do that when it's your own child."

'She's Always a Part of Me'

Seventeen years is an enormous chasm of time. Deep and wide enough for Keith Garvin to leave the military, remarry and divorce, become a supervisor with Verizon and move to a far corner of the state, into a lovely home on a quiet street that soon enough will be suburbia. He lives there alone, although the house could easily hold the family he and Dawn had hoped to have.

"People always ask me, 'Do you think you'd still be married?' Of course," he said, sitting at his kitchen table, the thought so real that he might almost imagine the children across from him. They'd be about teenagers at this point. Dawn would be 37. "She's always part of me," he said.

He guards his memories, the good and the bad. Excepting the testimony he gave at Oken's trial, he never agreed to the spotlight. He was 21, so slender and fresh-faced that in his white wedding tails, he looked more ready for the high school prom. He survived his wife's murder by getting away, for the most part.

"I always remembered her saying, 'Be happy with whatever you do with your life,' " Garvin said. "I've always tried to live that. If I did anything different than I was going to do before, I'd be doing a disservice to Dawn."

No matter the distance, he has kept abreast of the case's progression through its manifold appeals. And this week, if state prison officials call to tell him it is time, he will drive from North East, Md., to downtown Baltimore to sit beside his former mother-in-law and watch Oken's life end.

He hates Oken just as deeply as he ever has, despite conceding that "it's a very disgusting emotion to hate another human being. . . . Nothing's changed. The only thing that's changed is how I deal."

While Garvin and Betty Romano are inside the prison for the execution, Fred Romano and his son will be together outside. The son, also Fred, is now his parents' torchbearer for capital punishment. He is also a tattooed ex-Marine, a burly trucker and a gentle-hearted father, with a little girl named in part for his sister. When it thunders, he tells his daughter, that's the sound of Aunt Dawn bowling in heaven.

What he doesn't tell her, not yet, is why the bad man did what he did, or the many ways it has scarred those she loves. He also cries over memories. Back then, he was barely a few months past high school. Every time he pulls out his sister's card for his graduation, rereading how proud she was as he moved toward his future, he wells up.

"Sometimes I won't think about [the past] all day, and then something happens" and it all comes rushing back, he said. "When you look at my dad, you can't miss the hurt."

On a Web site he uses specifically to counter the anti-death-penalty argument, he is blunt about the trauma his family has suffered. The site has featured a clock that counted down the days, hours and minutes until Oken's execution week. He created the site the day after his mother was confronted in Annapolis. His parents couldn't bear the burden alone anymore, he decided. He had far broader shoulders for being called "bloodthirsty ghoul."

Shoulder to shoulder, he will stand with his father just beyond the prison walls. If the most recent executions are any guide, the two will be greatly outnumbered by protesters decrying the state's action -- among them, probably Oken's parents.

For once, the Romanos will not care.

Months after moving to a new apartment, Betty Romano hangs framed photographs of her daughter, Dawn, who was murdered 17 years ago in Baltimore County."It's time to end this," Betty Romano says of the appeals process. "It beats you to death." At right is Keith Garvin, Dawn Garvin's husband. In difficult times, he says, he still feels her presence.