Oken sentenced to die for '87 sexual assault, murder

January 26, 1991|By Deborah I. Greene | Deborah I. Greene,Baltimore County Bureau of The Sun

Steven H. Oken was sentenced to die yesterday for the sexual assault and murder of a White Marsh newlywed, despite an 11th-hour plea for his life in which he told jurors he was sorry.

The verdict in the November 1987 slaying of 20-year-old Dawn Marie Garvin provoked an emotional outburst in the Baltimore County courthouse.

Betty Romano, who has said Oken deserved to die for killing her daughter, dropped her head in relief, tears streaming down her flushed cheeks.

Across the aisle, Davida Oken screamed at prosecutor S. Ann

Brobst: "Just wait until it's your child in the gas chamber," then watched tearfully as sheriff's deputies led her son away.

Emotion continued to run high outside the courtroom, where the Okens gathered quietly and and the Romanos hugged each other and thanked friends for their support through the 10-day trial.

"I can't wait until she can go see her child in the cemetery," said a bitter Mrs. Romano, who accused the Okens of coddling their eldest son throughout his troubled life. Only then, she said, will the Okens know "what it's like to be a victim -- when he's gassed and they don't have him anymore."

Before the jury reached its decision, the 28-year-old White Marsh

man made a final appeal for mercy.

"I am responsible for taking the innocent life of Dawn Garvin," Oken said in a note that was read to the jury by his lawyer, Benjamin Lipsitz.

"There is not a day that goes by that I don't think of the grief I caused . . . the grief that her father, mother and husband live with every day. If there was anything I could do to bring Dawn Garvin back, I would," he wrote.

But the jury disregarded his pleas and decided that other mitigating factors -- his drug problem and his claim that he suffered from a mental disorder -- were not enough to keep them from condemning Oken to death.

"You are a very evil and dangerous man," Circuit Judge James T. Smith Jr. told Oken as he signed one order for death in the gas chamber and then another for a stay of execution pending a mandatory appeal.

Oken already has been sentenced to life in prison in Maine for killing a motel clerk, but the death sentence would take precedence. He faces another trial here in the slaying of his sister-in-law Patricia A. Hirt.

The verdict, announced after three hours of deliberation, was a bittersweet victory for the prosecutors, Ms. Brobst and Scott Shellenberger. "It was just the right thing to do. Nobody can take any pleasure in it," Mr. Shellenberger said.

In his closing argument, Mr. Lipsitz appealed to the jurors' moral and religious values, asking them to sentence Oken to life without parole instead of ordering him put to death.

Mr. Lipsitz tried to convince the jurors that Oken was driven to violence as a result of a sexual disorder, drug and alcohol addiction and the trauma of learning that he was adopted at birth.

The defense attorney even recited the biblical story of Cain murdering his brother, Abel.

"Then God was the judge," the attorney said. "God did not impose a death sentence on Cain, he exiled him . . ."

But prosecutors countered that Oken was out looking for a victim on the night he approached Dawn Garvin walking her dog and tricked the young woman into letting him use the phone in her apartment.

After forcing her to beg for her life and perform sexual acts, Oken executed a witness, Mr. Shellenberger told jurors.

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