Death warrant signed for Oken

Supreme Court declines to hear killer's appeal

Execution set for June

April 27, 2004|By Stephanie Hanes | Stephanie Hanes,SUN STAFF

A Baltimore County judge moved longtime death row inmate Steven Oken to the brink of execution yesterday, signing a death warrant that schedules the convicted killer to die during the week of June 14.

The move came hours after the U.S. Supreme Court quashed Oken's most recent appeal, saying it would not consider his claim that the Maryland Court of Appeals decided a legal issue wrongly in his case.

Prosecutors asked Baltimore County Circuit Judge John G. Turnbull II to sign the death warrant as soon as they learned of the Supreme Court's decision.

As administrative judge, Turnbull is required by law to sign the warrant, which orders the state Division of Correction to carry out a death sentence.

Oken was sentenced to death in 1991 for the torture, rape and murder of White Marsh newlywed Dawn Marie Garvin. He would be the first Maryland death row inmate to be executed in nearly six years.

Fred W. Bennett, Oken's lawyer, said yesterday that he will likely ask the Circuit Court or Court of Appeals to postpone the execution. He said that if those requests fail, he would ask Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to commute Oken's death sentence to life in prison.

"We will obviously do what we can to protect our client's interest, which is life," Bennett said.

Oken has received death warrants twice before. But both times, the state Court of Appeals stepped in and prevented the lethal injection from going forward, saying it wanted to consider a legal issue in one of Oken's many appeals.

But that issue, which involved the standard of proof used by a jury in deciding whether to impose a death sentence, has been resolved -- against Oken.

"We think that every issue that Oken could raise that has any merit has already been litigated," said Baltimore County Deputy State's Attorney Stephen Bailey. "So we're hopeful that at this point in the process Oken will be unable to find either a trial court or an appeals court to intervene and stop the execution."

Bailey said he spoke to Garvin's mother and brother yesterday morning and told them about the death warrant. But given the nature of death penalty cases, which are regularly delayed and appealed, he said he cautioned them not to be overly optimistic that the execution will happen in June.

He said they understood.

"This is a family who has been through the appeals process for 13 years," he said.

Members of Garvin's family could not be reached for comment yesterday.

In the fall of 1987, Oken, then 25, began a murder spree that left three women dead. His first victim was Garvin, 20.

The evening of Nov. 1, Oken saw Garvin outside her apartment. He asked to use her phone, and she agreed. Inside, he attacked her. After sexually torturing her for hours, he shot her twice in the head.

Two weeks later, Oken raped and killed his wife's 43-year-old sister, Patricia Hirt. He fled to Maine and murdered Lori Ward, a 25-year-old hotel clerk, at a hotel in Kittery.

Oken has been called the "poster boy" for the death penalty, because of the brutality of the crimes and the fact that he admits the killings.

He is also white -- a fact that death penalty supporters have pointed out in defending capital punishment against opponents who say it is racially biased.

As word of Oken's pending execution spread yesterday, anti-death penalty activists vowed to protest. Some said prosecutors were using Oken as a way to restart capital punishment in Maryland. Nobody has been executed in the state since 1998, when Tyrone X. Gilliam was killed by lethal injection.

"The reality is, in states where there is a problem of racial bias -- and Maryland probably has the most stark dynamics of any state -- politically, we often see that executions get restarted by doing the white guy first," said Jane Henderson, co-director of the Quixote Center, which fights the death penalty.

She and other activists point to a recent University of Maryland study they say shows geographic and racial bias in the application of the death penalty. Most death row inmates are from Baltimore County, and all were convicted of killing white people.

Baltimore County prosecutors and other death penalty supporters say the study does not show bias. They point to their policy of seeking death sentences in all cases that qualify as the reason why a disproportionate number of death row inmates are from the county.

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