Oken loses attempt to overturn 1991 death sentence in killing

2 Balto. County judges reject his arguments for a new hearing

Lawyer plans to appeal rulings

March 22, 2001|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

Steven Howard Oken, convicted of killing two women in Maryland and one in Maine in 1987, lost a bid to overturn his death sentence in Baltimore County Circuit Court yesterday, setting the stage for his execution as early as this spring.

Oken, in a gray prison jumpsuit, appeared unfazed as two judges issued back-to-back rulings rejecting arguments that he is entitled to a new sentencing hearing.

Assistant State's Attorney S. Ann Brobst said she would ask Judge James T. Smith Jr., who presided over Oken's trial in 1991, to sign a death warrant April 16.

If Smith signs the warrant, Oken could be executed within four to eight weeks, Brobst said.

Fred W. Bennett, lawyer for Oken, said he would appeal the rulings by Judge Dana M. Levitz and Smith. Oken had filed a motion for a new trial before Smith and used separate state appellate rulings to request post-conviction relief from Levitz.

Bennett said his appeal to the Maryland Court of Appeals could delay Oken's execution for at least several months so that he can prepare for the case.

"I think we're entitled to full briefings and oral argument on something this important," he said.

Bennett argued that the Supreme Court nullified Maryland's death penalty statute in June when it struck down a New Jersey hate-crime law.

The high court ruled in Apprendi vs. New Jersey that to increase a defendant's punishment beyond the statutory maximum, as the hate crime statute allowed, prosecutors must prove aggravating factors beyond a reasonable doubt.

Bennett said that in successfully arguing for a death sentence in Oken's case, the state was allowed to meet a lesser standard.

In rejecting Bennett's arguments, both judges said the New Jersey law had nothing to do with Maryland's death penalty statute.

"I am absolutely convinced that Apprendi has no applicability in this case," Levitz said.

He said the argument "borders on the frivolous."

Bennett said he also will use the Apprendi ruling May 3 before the Court of Appeals when he argues for a new trial for Lawrence Borchardt, who was sentenced to death in the spring last year for killing an elderly Rosedale couple in their home in 1998.

In a separate case, Brobst said yesterday that she has asked Harford County Circuit Judge Cypert O. Whitfill to sign a death warrant for Wesley Baker, who was convicted in the 1991 robbery and killing of Jane Tyson outside Westview Mall.

Like Oken, Baker had his final appeal before the Supreme Court rejected this year.

Gary Christopher, Baker's lawyer, said he hopes Whitfill will conduct a hearing to consider arguments similar to those raised by Oken's lawyer before signing the warrant.

Yesterday's hearings brought out Oken's relatives, as well as relatives of the victims.

Betty Romano, whose daughter was the first woman killed by Oken, said she felt the hearings were "a waste of time."

"I say put the maggot where he belongs, 6 feet under," she said, holding two photographs of her daughter, Dawn Marie Garvin.

Oken sexually assaulted and killed Garvin, a 20-year-old White Marsh newlywed, on Nov. 2, 1987.

Two weeks later, he killed his wife's sister, Patricia A. Hirt, 43, at his White Marsh townhouse.

Oken fled to Kittery, Maine, where he killed Lori E. Ward, 25, a motel clerk. He was arrested Nov. 17, 1987, in Kittery, pleaded guilty to the murder of Ward and was sentenced to life in prison.

On Jan. 25, 1991, he was sentenced to death for the murder of Garvin.

The next April, he pleaded guilty to killing Hirt and was given another life sentence to be served concurrently with a life sentence he received for sexually assaulting Garvin.

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