Speaking in favor of death penalty with justice for his sister in mind

Victim's brother says he won't rest until Oken dies

April 06, 2003|By Stephanie Hanes | Stephanie Hanes,SUN STAFF

Fred Romano is angry.

With a torrent of words, he launches into his tirade about the "thug huggers" who want to save Steven Oken, his sister's killer, from lethal injection.

"It makes me sick," the former Marine said. "It appalls me! It's been 12 years since he's been convicted. If I had a chance, I would take him out myself."

He leans forward, dark eyes wide, strong jaw set. "It's time to stop worrying about the scumbags on death row," he said.

This is Fred Romano on a mission. For two years, the 33-year-old has raged publicly about the state's death penalty system, a system he and his family became a part of in 1987, when Oken, an admitted sexual sadist, raped and executed his sister, 20-year-old Dawn Marie Garvin of White Marsh.

Romano said he shocks other death penalty advocates with his brashness and repels some relatives of murder victims. But he has also won fans -- death penalty supporters who are thrilled to have someone speaking for their cause, and some victims' relatives, including Romano's father and mother.

"I feel it is good," said 59-year-old Fred Romano, Romano's father. "I'm glad someone is doing it."

Fred Romano's parents have spoken publicly about their daughter's murder for years. But it wasn't until 2001, when then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening began to consider a moratorium on capital punishment, that Romano broke his silence.

"I just assumed justice would take its course," he said. "And then I lost faith."

Later, Glendening imposed the moratorium so that the University of Maryland could finish a study of the state's death penalty system. That research, completed late last year, revealed geographic and racial disparities in the law's application.

But that did not prevent Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. from lifting the moratorium when he took office this year. It did not help any of this year's anti-death penalty bills succeed, and it certainly did not sway Romano.

Raising his voice

To the contrary, the Harford County man has only gotten louder.

He derides the "antis," as he calls the anti-death penalty advocates, and argues with a bluntness atypical for even Annapolis' most contentious policy debates.

When Romano testified before the Judiciary Committee, he brought a glossy picture of his sister as a bride, along with a condiment bottle similar to the one Oken used to rape her.

From the computer in his living room, Romano works on his new Web site -- www.mc4se.org, or Maryland Coalition for State Executions -- which he hopes will become a clearinghouse for pro-death penalty thought across America. He is on disability from his job hauling soda crates, so he has time to update his site daily.

Romano realizes some other victims' family members are uncomfortable with his forwardness. He has had people tell him they did not want to get involved.

"I get a little upset sometimes," he said. "I'm not going to lie about it. I'm human. I can't keep detached about this. The people who haven't had relatives murdered, they can be more proper."

State Sen. Nancy Jacobs, a Republican from Harford County, is one who has welcomed Romano's efforts. She said Romano inspired her bill this session -- "Dawn's Law" -- that would have forced prosecutors to pursue the death penalty whenever possible. The bill failed.

Death penalty opponents, however, said Romano is an example of the harm capital punishment inflicts upon families, how its lengthy appeals system does not allow closure.

"Fred Romano is a complicated study," said Michael Stark, the Baltimore-Washington coordinator of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. "On one hand, one feels obliged to be deferential because of what happened to his sister. But on the other hand, I think it's clear that this guy is not dealing with his pain well."

Story of a killer

The story of Garvin and Oken is well known to those involved in Maryland's death penalty debate. Garvin was recently married to her high school sweetheart when Oken tricked her into letting him into her apartment.

After killing Garvin, Oken tortured and murdered Patricia Hirt, his sister-in-law, and a hotel clerk in Maine. On Maryland's small death row, he is next in line for execution.

Oken has been called the "poster boy" for death penalty supporters. He is white and from a financially well-off family, so arguments about racial and economic bias do not apply. He has admitted his crimes in detail.

Yet, his cause has rallied death penalty opponents. The Catholic Church, in which Romano was raised, has opposed Oken's execution.

Romano has since renounced Catholicism.

"I believe in a higher power," he said. "But when you support a cold-blooded murderer in lieu of someone who was a Catholic -- it hurts. It's just so unfair."

Romano's father said he was also hurt by the hordes of people supporting his daughter's killer.

He is still haunted by the murder -- he was the one who found her, bloody, tears still on her face, a teddy bear tucked in her arms -- but is able to talk about it calmly, if mournfully.

Out of denial

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