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.
Ehrlich, a strong supporter of the death penalty, had pledged repeatedly since taking office that he would carefully review any case that came before him. This was his first opportunity to do so, and Ehrlich wrote that he had employed "a deliberative process," examining all the facts and judicial opinions, and "as thoughtful decision making as I am able to summon in this so tragic matter."
In an interview earlier in the day, Ehrlich said he was not troubled by the weight of the decision. "That's why I get paid," he said. "Executives make decisions. If you have difficulty making tough decisions, maybe you shouldn't be an executive. It's part of the job."
Oken faced the death penalty for Garvin's slaying. He received two terms of life without parole for his other crimes -- the killing in Maryland of his sister-in-law, Patricia Hirt, and the slaying of Lori Ward, a young motel clerk in Maine whom he chanced upon while fleeing up the coast. By agreement between the states, had Ehrlich granted clemency to any degree, Oken would have been transferred to Maine and served the rest of his life behind bars there.
The governor's conclusion, though, was no surprise: "It is my decision not to override the judicial determinations of the sentence of death imposed upon Steven Oken." In a separate statement, he said, "My sympathies tonight lie with the families of all those involved in these heinous crimes."
The various groups that have 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, Amnesty International's coordinator for abolition of the death penalty in Maryland. "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. Because he clearly was never going to get out."
But after more than a decade of court appeals, Bennett said his client was "ready to die." Before being transported across the street from the Supermax prison, where officials recently moved him from death row to solitary confinement, Oken composed a two-page letter to Ehrlich that Bennett said expresses contrition.
Oken offered no words for the witnesses as he lay on the padded, stainless steel table, catheters inserted in both arms and a pale blue sheet pulled up to his chest. Witnesses said Oken was conscious and seemed to be joking with a prison chaplain immediately before the procedure.
He offered no resistance as the solution began to flow at 9:09. There was no movement after 9:11. He was pronounced dead at 9:18.
Seventeen years ago, Oken was a college dropout working at his parents' pharmacy near Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore and watching as his marriage fell apart. He'd been drinking heavily, stealing antidepressants and other drugs from the pharmacy shelves and generally spiraling downward.
In court, he initially claimed that he could not remember what happened the night Garvin was killed -- a memory lapse he blamed on the booze, pills and a "sexual sadism" that he could not control. Psychiatrists who testified for him after he recovered his memory late in the trial provided horrific details of what he said he did to Garvin after he approached her as she walked her dog and persuaded her to let him use her phone.
Garvin's father discovered her body in her White Marsh apartment, a nightmarish scene that has haunted him ever since.
"You are a very evil and dangerous man," declared Baltimore County Circuit Judge James T. Smith Jr. at the conclusion of Oken's trial in 1991. His death penalty launched appeals in state and federal court on a multiplicity of issues. Twice, Maryland's highest court came within one vote of ruling that Supreme Court decisions had rendered his sentence illegal. One death warrant lapsed because of an execution moratorium imposed by then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D), responding to growing concern about racial and geographic disparities in the way the system is administered in Maryland.
Staff writer Matthew Mosk contributed to this report.
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.