New execution stirs memories

Rage, relief and grief from prominent case

December 03, 2005|By JULIE BYKOWICZ | JULIE BYKOWICZ,SUN REPORTER

The Romano family stood outside the old state penitentiary on East Madison Street and chanted "Na, na, na, na, hey, hey, goodbye," as the hearse carrying the body of Steven Howard Oken drove off into the night June 17, 2004.

Death penalty opponents who were corralled across the street considered the celebration tasteless. But Fred A. Romano, the brother of one of the three women Oken sexually assaulted and killed in 1987, said that after waiting for 17 years, he deserved some release.

"The burden has been lifted," he said that night.

Almost a year and a half later - as Maryland prepares to execute another inmate - Romano says, "I really do feel better. I don't feel that rage inside of me anymore."

FOR THE RECORD - An article Saturday about the 2004 execution of Steven Howard Oken incorrectly reported that Fred A. Romano taught his children to say that they wanted to carry out Oken's execution themselves.
The Sun regrets the error.

The death warrant goes into effect Monday for Wesley Eugene Baker, convicted in Baltimore County of shooting a grandmother during a robbery in a mall parking lot.

In an interview this week, Romano said he is prepared to slip back into the role of advocate, albeit a more measured one this time. He wrote a letter to the governor and plans to hold a victim's vigil outside the prison the night Baker is scheduled to be put to death.

For Oken's parents, his lawyers and the death penalty opponents involved in his case, news of another execution has resurrected sorrowful memories.

"This just opens up all kinds of old wounds," Davida Oken, Steven Oken's mother, said in a brief telephone interview this week. Those who know Oken's parents say they are still grieving.

Rabbi Jacob Max counseled Oken the night of his death, witnessed his execution and officiated his funeral. He said the Okens, whom he described as a "wonderful family," rarely talk about what happened. "They have to live with it," he said. "Of course justice had to be served, but it is still a very painful thing for them."

Fred Warren Bennett, Oken's appellate attorney, who fought a furious legal battle on Oken's behalf, was so depressed by Oken's execution that he said he would never again take a capital murder case. But, five months ago, he did just that, agreeing to represent convicted killer Jody Miles of the Eastern Shore.

"It's a lot of stress, but I'm back doing it," said Bennett, a lifelong defense attorney and death penalty opponent. He and Michael E. Lawlor sat on prison-made bleachers and watched their client put to death in a ritualized, clinical procedure that took less than nine minutes.

Now, Lawlor is one of Baker's attorneys. "I know what he's going through," Bennett said. "I know he's trying to do everything he can for his client."

Bennett's efforts to save Oken locked him in a battle with the Romanos, who showed up at each of the numerous court hearings all across the state in the weeks before the execution. At one point, as he left the state's highest court after asking for his client's life to be spared, Bennett tried to make peace.

He approached Betty Romano, whose 20-year-old daughter, Dawn Marie Garvin, was assaulted and killed by Oken in her White Marsh apartment. The mother looked up from her cigarette and shot the lawyer an icy stare.

Bennett persisted: "Mrs. Romano, I ... I want to tell you how sorry I am."

"Doesn't mean a word to me," she snapped.

Bennett retreated, mumbling that he was sorry he had tried to talk to her.

He turned back to hear Romano say: "You should be on that table with him."

The aggressive behavior of the Romanos, said Michael Stark, a death penalty opponent, compounded Davida Oken's grief at losing her son.

"I think she is still traumatized by the way her entire family was vilified and publicly attacked for standing by Steven," Stark said.

In the years leading to Oken's execution, Fred A. Romano, a truck driver who lives in Harford County, evolved into a vocal and often blunt proponent of the death penalty, commenting often that he'd like to kill Oken himself and teaching his young children to say similar things.

When Oken's death warrant was signed in 2004, Romano put a countdown on his Maryland pro-death-penalty Web site - a site that hasn't been updated in months and that he said he will soon take down.

He became the face of murder victims, giving dozens of media interviews and using a bullhorn the night of the execution to keep the crowd pumped up.

He says now that perhaps he came across as "too celebratory," but he says he did it because of a promise that he had made to his sister. "I woke up every morning for so many years thinking about it [the execution]. When is it going to happen? Is it going to be postponed again?"

That changed instantly, he said, when word of a completed execution about 9:30 p.m. that night in June reached the Romano rally outside the prison. A week later, Romano and his family put flowers on Dawn's grave and told her they'd kept their promise that "justice would be served."

Romano said his constant thoughts of Oken have been replaced by memories of his sister.

"Now, I think about Dawn," he said. "It's all good things now. There is no more hate"

Romano says he lost most of his youth to stress because of many rounds of appeals that preceded Oken's execution, but he believes he and his whole family breathe more easily now.

"I wish I could have those years of my life back," he said.

Romano said he and other family members will keep vigil outside the downtown Baltimore prison if Baker is executed next week. Romano also sent a letter Wednesday to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., urging him not to commute Baker's sentence.

Baker was sentenced to death in 1992 for shooting Jane Tyson, a 49-year-old teacher's aide, during a robbery in front of two of her grandchildren outside Westview Mall in Baltimore County.

In his letter, Romano wrote of the Tyson family: "I don't think they realize how much relief they are going to have when this is finally over. I can only hope they will find the same peace that my family and I have."

julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com

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