Oken murder trial opens as bereaved testify

January 11, 1991|By Deborah I. Greene | Deborah I. Greene,Baltimore County Bureau of The Sun

Fred Romano is still haunted by what he discovered when he went to check on his daughter in White Marsh during the `D pre-dawn hours of Nov. 2, 1987.

Dawn Marie Garvin, a 20-year-old newlywed, had been sexually assaulted and slain. Her nude body was propped up in bed, a bloody pillow sham over her head and a teddy bear under her arm.

"It was shocking . . . absolutely shocking," said Mr. Romano of Abingdon, who had gone to his daughter's apartment after her husband became frantic when she did not answer his telephone calls from a Navy base in Virginia.

Mr. Romano testified yesterday as a Baltimore County jury began considering the fate of Steven H. Oken, 30, of White Marsh, the man accused of shooting his daughter "execution-style" in the forehead and left ear.

"This is a brutal, heinous crime. It's going to shock your conscience," prosecutor Scott Shellenberger warned the seven men and five women who will hear some three weeks of testimony on the charges of first-degree murder, rape and robbery.

But Oken's guilt or innocence may not be the only issue the jury decides. If he is convicted, the jury will then decide if he is not criminally responsible by reason of insanity, a procedure unprecedented in the county.

Dealing with those issues separately is part of lawyer Benjamin Lipsitz's strategy for defending Oken, who already has been convicted in the murder of a Maine motel clerk and faces another trial here in the sex slaying of his sister-in-law, Patricia Hirt.

"Juries don't welcome not-criminally-responsible pleas. It creates the impression that this guy is trying to cop out," Mr. Lipsitz argued during a pretrial motion in which he asked that the jury not be told about the insanity plea until after the first trial.

Circuit Judge James T. Smith Jr. rejected the motion, saying he was bound to inform the jury.

Ann S. Bropst, another prosecutor on the case, said that guilt and responsibility were usually considered together during a single phase of a trial.

Ms. Bropst said she wasn't worried about how the separation of those issues would affect the state's case. She said prosecutors had sufficient evidence, including a .25-caliber semiautomatic pistol found in Oken's dresser drawer that, according to FBI ballistics tests, was the gun used to kill Ms. Garvin.

In his opening statements, Mr. Lipsitz sought to appeal to jurors' sense of morality, noting that prosecutors were seeking the death penalty. "You're charged with whether a fellow human being shall live or die," he said.

Mr. Lipsitz told the jurors that Oken suffered from amnesia and could not recall anything that happened the night of Ms. Garvin's murder.

"It's just gone from his memory, as if he had nothing to do with it at all," he said.

He also contended he could prove that police found no certifiable evidence -- no hair samples, body fluids or fingerprints -- to place Oken in Ms. Garvin's apartment the night of her death.

Police suspect that Ms. Garvin was either confronted that night while she was walking her dog or that her assailant entered her apartment by posing as a doctor or a neighbor in urgent need of a telephone.

Ms. Garvin's husband, Keith, then a sailor, testified yesterday that he last saw his wife alive about 6 p.m. that night as he left home on a six-hour drive to a naval base in Oceana, Va.

Mr. Garvin said he called his wife twice during the trip but received no answer after 9 p.m. Concerned about his wife, he then telephoned Mr. Romano, who later found his daughter dead.

Two weeks later, within a mile of Ms. Garvin's apartment, a road crew found Ms. Hirt's nude body in a ravine off White Marsh Boulevard.

She had disappeared after telling relatives that she was going to Oken's town house to loan her sister and brother-in-law a camera. The Okens are now in the process of a divorce.

Oken then became the prime suspect in both slayings.

He was captured Nov. 17, 1987, in Kittery, Maine, following the sexual assault and murder of Lori E. Ward, 25, a clerk at a small motel where he stayed after fleeing Maryland.

At yesterday's trial, Fred and Betty Romano were surrounded by family and friends as they sat through the grisly details and evidence of the rape, torture, robbery and slaying of their daughter, a college student who had been married four months.

Mr. Romano sat stoically, his hands clasped in his lap. His wife, who has formed a support group for families of murder victims, leaned against his shoulder, occasionally dabbing at the corner of her eye with a crumpled blue tissue.

"It's been such a very long and difficult time," Mrs. Romano said in an interview before the trial. "Even after three years, the pain is still there."

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