- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 17, 2004

BALTIMORE — Condemned killer Steven Howard Oken was executed by injection last night at the state’s death chamber after the federal courts denied all of his appeals and Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. declined to grant clemency.

Oken, 42, was pronounced dead at 9:18 p.m. His execution, which lasted seven minutes, came after 17 years of trials, appeals, stays and legal maneuvers that prolonged his life.

The victims’ families took solace in the execution.

“They are all looking down on us tonight and thanking us for seeing it through,” said Fred A. Romano, brother of Dawn Marie Garvin, who was one of three women Oken killed in November 1987.

Asked whether Oken’s death would bring any healing to his family, Mr. Romano said, “It started at 9:18. The burden’s been lifted. Oken is dead.”

Earlier, Mr. Ehrlich denied a request to spare Oken from execution.

“After a thorough review of the request for clemency, the facts pertinent to the petition, and the judicial opinions regarding this case, I decline to intervene,” Mr. Ehrlich said. “My sympathies tonight lie with the families of all those involved in these heinous crimes.”

Oken was put to death for Mrs. Garvin’s murder. Oken also was convicted of raping and murdering his wife’s older sister, Patricia Hirt, 43, and Lori Ward, 25, a motel clerk in Maine. He was sentenced to life without parole in both slayings, which occurred two weeks after Mrs. Garvin’s murder.

Several relatives of Oken’s murder victims witnessed the execution. They were: Mrs. Garvin’s mother, Betty Romano, and husband, Keith Douglas Garvin; and Mrs. Hirt’s sisters, Danielle Marecki and Phyllis, Oken’s ex-wife, who declined to give her last name.

Mrs. Romano said Oken did not make a statement before the lethal drug mixture was administered.

“The only problem is he died in peace,” she said. “My daughter didn’t have the luxury to die in peace the way I saw him die tonight.”

Mrs. Romano said at one point during the execution, Oken’s toe twitched a “mile a minute.” She said she saw little else, commenting that her view of the inmate was his toes and his stomach.

“He was aware until he got that first shot,” she said. “I could tell by the reaction of his body.”

Mrs. Hirt’s uncle, Joseph Mantegna, 59, said the execution will bring closure to his family.

“He took innocent lives for no apparent reason, other than selfishness and anger,” said Mr. Mantegna, who is a retired Baltimore city police officer. “He destroyed three families including his own.”

“I’ll be sleeping a little better at night,” said Monique Klapka, 35, one of Mrs. Hirt’s daughters. “I’ll know there will be no chance of me ever running into him ever, ever.”

After the execution, Oken’s lead attorney, Fred Warren Bennett said the justice system failed his client.

“It is broken. It can never be repaired,” he said. “The state should not take someone’s life period.”

Oken’s last meal consisted of a chicken patty, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans, marble cake, milk and fruit punch.

Oken’s attorneys spent yesterday filing 11th-hour legal challenges to Maryland’s lethal injection system, all of which were denied. Oken’s attorneys said his death could be unconstitutionally cruel if the state’s execution team had to cut deeply into his flesh to administer the lethal drugs.

A procedure called a “cut down” is used to deliver drugs when problems, such as a history of intravenous drug use, complicate reaching a vein in an inmate’s arm, neck or thigh.

The U.S. Supreme Court, which vacated the stay of execution in Oken’s case Wednesday, ruled last month that an Alabama death row inmate could pursue a similar claim. The justices were told that if the cut down was done improperly, the procedure could cause David Larry Nelson to hemorrhage severely and experience heart problems before the drug cocktail could kill him.

The Maryland prison system doesn’t have a procedure for checking in advance to see whether Oken would need a cut down, said Jerome H. Nickerson Jr., an Oken attorney. He also said the execution team is not experienced enough nor does it have adequate equipment for such a procedure.

Witnesses of the execution said last night there was never any indication that anything was dripping from the intravenous line.

U.S. District Judge Peter J. Messitte, who on Tuesday granted a stay of execution, refused yesterday to issue a stay on those grounds, Mr. Bennett said. The 4th Circuit also denied an appeal last night.

The Supreme Court refused again to block Oken’s execution yesterday. Oken’s attorneys sent an appeal earlier in the day based on arguments that his trial attorney and the first attorney to represent him in his appeals didn’t do everything they could to save his life.

Those lawyers didn’t conduct a thorough social history that could have helped psychologists present mitigating factors to the jury, Oken’s attorneys argued. Those lawyers “failed to uncover compelling facts concerning petitioner’s genetic background and severe neurological problems,” the attorneys contended.

In its response, the state described the claims as “beyond belief.” The Maryland Attorney General’s Office said that unlike another state death-row inmate who won a new sentencing last summer from the Supreme Court, Oken’s adoptive parents were not alcoholics who abandoned or abused him.

Oken also was educated, was married and had a home of his own, the state noted.

Another witness told reporters last night that Oken sent Mr. Ehrlich a letter apologizing and showing contrition. The letter was not delivered to the governor until after he denied Oken’s request for clemency.

Mrs. Garvin, 20, was newly married to Mr. Garvin when Oken talked his way into her White Marsh, Md., apartment by asking to use her phone. Mr. Garvin had just left home after visiting on a weekend pass from the Navy base in Oceana, Va. Oken raped, sexually tortured and shot her twice in the head with a .25-caliber pistol.

Mrs. Garvin was preparing to start a new accounting job the next morning at the World Trade Center in Baltimore.

Mrs. Hirt had two teenage daughters whom she raised alone and put through private school by working as a secretary at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Two weeks after Oken murdered Mrs. Garvin, Oken raped, beat and killed Mrs. Hirt, who had gone to his home to return a camera.

After Oken shot Mrs. Hirt in the head, he stole her 1979 white Ford Mustang. He dumped her naked body in a ditch by the side of the road as he fled north. Mrs. Hirt’s body was found Nov. 16, 1987.

Oken drove to Kittery, Maine, that day and checked into the Coachman Motor Inn, where Miss Ward worked at the front desk. Later that day, a maintenance worker found Miss Ward’s body in the office. She had been molested and shot once in the head.

Miss Ward’s sister, Suzanne Tsintolas, attended nearly every court hearing as Oken tried to avoid the death penalty.

“Anyone who is a victim of a violent crime, and of course family members left behind are also victims, we all want the full extent of the law extended to the person responsible for that crime,” said Mrs. Tsintolas, who later had moved to the Baltimore suburbs where Oken’s trials, sentencing and legal maneuvers took place.

Miss Ward’s family established a memorial fund to assist the New Hampshire Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, money that still is used to train every fourth-grader in Maine’s Seacoast region about responsible pet ownership and how to behave around wild animals or animals a child doesn’t know.

Oken is the fourth man to be executed in Maryland since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in the 1970s. The last man that the state put to death was Tyrone X. Gilliam in November 1998, for killing Christine Doerfler during a carjacking 10 years earlier.

Oken is the first person executed since Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat, ordered a death penalty moratorium in May 2002. Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, lifted that moratorium when he took office in January 2003. Oken also is the first person executed since a University of Maryland study found racial disparity in the state’s disposition of death sentences.

Mr. Ehrlich had said he would “thoroughly and thoughtfully” review the case and decide whether to grant clemency based on the facts and legal argument of the case. He also said he was keeping his campaign promise to allow the legal process to advance convicted murderers toward Maryland’s death chamber, despite the finding of the university study.

“I’m glad Ehrlich took the moratorium off the death penalty,” Mr. Mantegna said. “He’s a fair man.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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