Appeals court to review Oken case

Decision could delay all Md. executions

April 13, 2001|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

The Court of Appeals agreed yesterday to review the capital case of Steven Howard Oken, a move expected to delay all executions in Maryland for at least several months.

The state's highest court agreed to consider Oken's appeal on constitutional issues. It also denied a request by the state attorney general's office to consider the appeal next month when the court hears arguments for another death row inmate.

The ruling means that Oken's appeal is not likely to be heard until next fall and will not be decided until at least several months after that, according to state lawyers.

Because the claims in Oken's case may be raised by other death row inmates, the decision is expected to bring a halt to all executions in Maryland, including those scheduled for three inmates whose appeals are nearly exhausted.

"It puts all four cases on hold, because the issues in Oken are common to all four of them," said Assistant Attorney General Gary Bair, who oversees the state's criminal appeals division.

Prosecutors had hoped the appeals court would consider Oken's appeal at a hearing May 4 for Lawrence Borchardt, who was sentenced to death last spring for killing an elderly Rosedale couple in 1998.

Death penalty opponents praised the appeals court decision, but victims' relatives called it a major setback, especially in light of the hard-fought battle to defeat a proposed death penalty moratorium in the legislative session that ended Monday night. The measure failed in the final hours of the session.

"I've done nothing but cry all morning," said Betty Romano, whose daughter, 20-year-old Dawn Marie Garvin, was one of three women murdered by Oken in 1987.

The appeals court ruling occurs as Baltimore County prosecutors are preparing to seek death warrants against Oken and Wesley Baker, who was convicted in 1991 of robbing and killing Jane Tyson at Westview Mall in Catonsville.

Oken, Baker, Vernon Evans and Anthony Grandison had nearly exhausted their appeals and could have faced execution in the next few months.

Baltimore County Circuit Judge James T. Smith Jr., who presided over Oken's trial, had planned to meet with lawyers Monday to consider signing Oken's death warrant.

Harford County Circuit Judge Cypert O. Whitfill, who presided over Baker's trial in 1992, had scheduled a hearing for Tuesday afternoon to consider arguments about whether he should sign Baker's death warrant.

Baltimore County Assistant State's Attorney S. Ann Brobst said yesterday that she is weighing whether to ask the judges to sign the warrants. "We haven't decided," she said. "We have a lot to think about with this decision."

Fred W. Bennett, Oken's lawyer, said it would be difficult for prosecutors to persuade a judge to sign a death warrant with unresolved legal issues in the case. "It's not likely a court would issue a warrant of execution in any of these cases with this issue pending," he said.

Bennett, who also represents Borchardt, says all 13 of Maryland's death row inmates are entitled to new sentencing hearings, because the state's death penalty law fails to meet the test established by the U.S. Supreme Court last year in Apprendi vs. New Jersey.

The high court ruled that to increase a defendant's prison sentence beyond a statutory maximum, as New Jersey's hate-crimes statute allowed, prosecutors must prove the existence of aggravating factors beyond a reasonable doubt. Maryland jurors use a lesser standard at sentencing.

Prosecutors say Apprendi doesn't apply to the state's death row inmates because, unlike punishment in New Jersey's hate-crimes law, capital punishment in Maryland is not an enhanced penalty.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.