- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 13, 2004

Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who now alone has the power to spare the life of convicted killer Steven Howard Oken, said yesterday he was giving the case a “thorough and thoughtful review” as preparations are made to carry out the execution as early as today.

Oken, 42, was sentenced to death for killing Dawn Marie Garvin, a 20-year-old newlywed, whom he sexually tortured then shot twice in the head after talking his way into her White Marsh, Md., apartment in late 1987.

He would be the first person executed since the Republican governor last year lifted the death-penalty moratorium ordered by former Gov. Parris N. Glendening in May 2002. Oken also would be the first person executed since a University of Maryland study found racial bias in the state’s disposition of death sentences.

Mr. Ehrlich will not comment specifically about Oken’s scheduled execution, because he does not want to prejudice his decision on whether to grant a stay. However, Mr. Ehrlich said that by allowing executions to proceed, he was keeping a campaign promise.

“We are simply fulfilling the promise we made in the campaign to give a thorough and thoughtful review to every capital case.” Mr. Ehrlich said yesterday before taking part in the Chesapeake Bay Wade-In off Broomes Island in Calvert County. “We look at the facts of each case and the legal arguments of each case.”

The Maryland Court of Appeals in a 6-1 ruling Wednesday denied Oken’s request to delay his execution, setting in motion plans to put him to death by injection sometime between today and Friday. The exact date and time will be kept secret until a few hours before the execution would take place.

Meanwhile, Delegate Salima S. Marriott, a Baltimore Democrat and chairman of the law and justice panel of the Legislative Black Caucus, said Mr. Ehrlich was wrong to allow the legal process to advance execution dates for Oken and seven other inmates on Maryland’s death row.

“They want the state of Maryland to be a killing machine,” she said. “You shouldn’t kill anyone when you have a flawed system.”

Mr. Ehrlich declined to respond to Mrs. Marriott’s comment, but said, “It speaks to itself.”

Mr. Glendening ordered the moratorium in May 2002 and commissioned a University of Maryland report on the fairness of the distribution of the death penalty in the state. The results of the study were issued in January 2003, when Mr. Ehrlich took office.

The study, which did not identify a cause of the racial disparity, concluded that prosecutors are more likely to seek the death penalty for cases in which blacks are accused of killing whites.

However, blacks were not more likely to receive such a sentence when they committed crimes other than killing whites.

The report also said the decisions made by state’s attorneys on whether to pursue the death penalty varied widely among counties.

Of the eight inmates on Maryland’s death row, five are black and three are white. All of their victims were white. Baltimore County courts handed down five of the death sentences; Baltimore City and Prince George’s and Wicomico counties imposed the others.

Mrs. Marriott said even though Oken is white, his case still fits the pattern of racial bias.

“The fact that Oken is white is only one side of the racial disparity,” she said. “The other side of the racial disparity is that the victim is always white.”

She said executing more people for killing blacks would not fix the problem.

The murder of Mrs. Garvin was the first of three killings by Oken, who appeared to have planned a series of rapes and murders and packed a bag of supplies — including chloroform to help subdue his victims, according to court records.

Oken also was convicted of murdering his sister-in-law, Patricia A. Hirt, 43, in Maryland, nearly two weeks after he killed Mrs. Garvin. Oken raped, beat and killed Mrs. Hirt, who had gone to his home to return a camera.

Oken dumped Mrs. Hirt’s naked body in a drainage ditch as he drove north in her Mustang.

Two days later, Oken raped and killed Lori Ward, 25, a clerk on duty at the motel he checked into in Kittery, Maine. Oken was arrested and sentenced to life without parole in Maine for Miss Ward’s killing.

He received the same sentence in Maryland for Mrs. Hirt’s killing.

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