Judge signs execution warrant

Balto. County murderer slated to die in March

January 16, 2002|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,SUN STAFF

Steven Howard Oken, the Baltimore County man convicted of sexually assaulting and murdering a 20-year-old newlywed 15 years ago, is slated to be the next inmate on Maryland's death row to be executed.

Baltimore County Circuit Judge John G. Turnbull II signed a death warrant yesterday for Oken's execution, which would take place the first week in March if a new round of appeals proves unsuccessful.

Oken's lawyer, Fred W. Bennett, said yesterday he will file a motion with the Maryland Court of Appeals to delay the execution. He is also preparing to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to hear arguments that Maryland's death penalty law should be nullified, based on a recent New Jersey case that raised questions about sentencing requirements.

Oken would be the first inmate to die by lethal injection in Maryland since Tyrone Gilliam in 1998. Thirteen inmates are on the state's death row.

Oken, 39, was convicted of murdering three women during a rampage in 1987 that took him from Maryland to Maine.

He was sentenced to death in 1991 for killing Dawn Marie Garvin on Nov. 2, 1987. Garvin's father found her body in her White Marsh apartment with two gunshots to her head.

At Oken's trial, a ballistics expert testified that a .25-caliber automatic handgun found in his home was the same gun that fired the shells discovered near Garvin's body. A small piece of rubber found near Garvin's television set also matched a hole in Oken's tennis shoe, according to an FBI expert.

Baltimore County's State's Attorney Sandra A. O'Connor, whose office prosecuted Oken, noted yesterday the length of time it took for Oken's execution to be scheduled.

"I'm sure the parents and relatives and friends of the victims are relieved to see it moving forward. It is a long time to live with something like this," she said.

Garvin's family did not return a phone call yesterday.

Oken was also sentenced to two life terms for two other murders and sexual assaults.

He pleaded guilty to killing his wife's sister, Patricia A. Hirt, 43, two weeks after the Garvin murder. Hirt was raped, beaten, strangled and shot in the head at close range in Oken's White Marsh townhouse.

After fleeing to Maine, Oken killed Lori E. Ward, 25, a motel clerk in Kittery.

Bennett said yesterday he will continue his attempts to get the state's death penalty statute overturned, based on a recent Supreme Court ruling that struck down a New Jersey hate-crime law in the case of Apprendi vs. New Jersey.

The Supreme Court ruled in Apprendi that to increase a defendant's prison sentence beyond the statutory maximum, as the hate-crime law allowed, prosecutors must prove that aggravating factors outweigh mitigating factors beyond a reasonable doubt.

Maryland's death penalty statute allows jurors to use a preponderance of evidence, a lesser standard.

Maryland's high court, in a 4-3 decision last month, ruled that the Apprendi case had no bearing on the state's death penalty law. But Bennett said that recent court rulings in other states have bolstered his arguments and that he hopes to persuade the Supreme Court to strike down Maryland's law.

If the law is nullified, all inmates on Maryland's death row would have to be resentenced.

Oken was a clerk at his family's pharmacy near Johns Hopkins Hospital at the time of the killings. At his trial in the killing of Garvin, he was unsuccessful in persuading the judge that he was insane and had a rare mental disorder.

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