THE E-MAILS have been arriving steadily for weeks. After a Baltimore County judge signed a death warrant for convicted murderer Steven Oken April 26, and Mr. Oken's attorneys began a series of challenges to stop his scheduled execution, no recent series of articles in The Sun has produced more impassioned responses.
Whether the reactions were to stories about Mr. Oken's family or articles on death penalty opponents or stories about the feelings of the families of the three women Mr. Oken killed, the level of interest kept growing. But when a federal judge issued an indefinite stay of execution Tuesday, the e-mail stream became a torrent. One reader said: "Our legal system continues to deteriorate. We need politicians, judges and good lawyers that care more about victims. Another sad day in Maryland."
Then, suddenly Wednesday night, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the federal court ruling and cleared the way for Mr. Oken's execution again. Mr. Oken was put to death by lethal injection at 9:18 p.m. Thursday.
This on-again, off-again, on-again situation played havoc with family members and supporters on both sides of the issue.
"My family has been put through hell for 17 years," said Betty Romano, whose daughter, Dawn Marie Garvin, was killed by Mr. Oken in 1987. "Steven Oken has been brought to justice. The only problem is that Steven Oken died in peace, and my daughter didn't have the luxury to die in peace like I saw him die tonight."
Fred Warren Bennett, Mr. Oken's lead attorney, said Thursday night that by 7:30 p.m. his client "pretty much knew there was nothing left. I told him he wouldn't be alone. We'd all be there with him."
Reader Lisa Wright wrote: "I am so glad about this. ... My prayers go out to the victims' families. They finally have closure." And from Cliff Tomlin: "The death penalty does not deter people from killing people."
The debate over the death penalty continues to be at the forefront of social concern. Hundreds of newspaper articles are written every year about it. Columnists cajole, editorials opine and reporters report. Studies are noted and statistics produced, but for many it is simply one of the most emotional issues imaginable.
For The Sun's Julie Bykowicz, the past weeks have been emotional, too. She reported and wrote most of the articles about the case, following the legal and personal twists and turns every day. She wrote substantial pieces about the Romanos and other family members of the victims. She wrote about Mr. Oken's family and his supporters.
Ms. Bykowicz also wrote of the rabbi whose pro-death penalty views changed after personal contact with the Oken family, which is Jewish, and how parts of the local Jewish community became involved in the case. And with another Sun reporter, Andrea F. Siegel, she wrote about how race (Mr. Oken is white and the majority of death row inmates in Maryland are black) played a role in the state's decision to choose him to be the first inmate executed since 1998.
The e-mails received by The Sun express a variety of opinions but occasionally resembled "kill the messenger" missives. One reader said: "The Sun is soft on criminals. He's a cold-blooded killer and writing about him just creates sympathy."
Another wrote: "It makes me sick to think that the media is spending so much time on such an absurd story. This man not only deserves to die, there could not be a cruel or inhuman way to kill him." And a few messages have been so vicious and crude that even I blushed when I read them.
After Mr. Oken was executed Thursday night, Ms. Bykowicz and other Sun reporters covered all aspects of the event, including rallies outside the state penitentiary and an emotionally charged news conference. Because of the strong opinions inspired by the execution, more expressions of anger, support, frustration and sadness likely will pour forth from readers.
It has been an intense experience for Ms. Bykowicz. "I talked daily to the victims' families and frequently to Oken's mother," she said. "Both sides were very passionate, and it became difficult to deal with all of that human emotion. I tried to remember to take a step back and focus on the story as a whole instead of getting swept up into any one part of it."
With this kind of story, that is the only way to do it.
Paul Moore's column appears on Sunday.