- The Washington Times - Monday, April 21, 2003

BELCAMP, Md. Fred Romano has been waiting for death for a dozen years not his own but that of Steven Oken, the man convicted in 1991 of raping and killing his newlywed sister.
Mr. Romano has waited through appeals and reviews of Oken's case. He has waited through a moratorium on the death penalty imposed last year by then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening.
And now, though Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. lifted the moratorium and a Baltimore County judge signed a death warrant for Oken this year, Mr. Romano must wait as the state's highest court prepares to hear arguments on the fairness of the death penalty.
Oken, who has confessed without remorse to raping and killing three women in 1987, including Dawn Marie Romano Garvin, was scheduled to die last month. It would have been Maryland's first execution in nearly 4 years.
"I believed that the justice system worked. But it is the injustice system," Mr. Romano, 33, says in his home in Harford County.
In the 15 years since Oken attacked and murdered his 20-year-old sister, Mr. Romano has become one of the state's most vocal supporters of capital punishment. "I feel like a vigilante because to an extent I am. I feel like I am alone in this fight," he says.
He is less alone these days. On a break from his truck-driving job to recuperate from surgery, Mr. Romano spends hours a day on his computer feeding a Web site (www.mc4se.org) for the group he started two years ago, the Maryland Coalition for State Executions.
He has testified about the death penalty before the General Assembly. He has lobbied lawmakers and policy makers on the application of capital punishment.
Still, he waits.
Next month the Maryland Court of Appeals is scheduled to hear an appeal by Oken's attorney, Fred Warren Bennett, on the constitutionality of the death penalty.
Mr. Bennett got Oken a stay of execution last month by arguing that the U.S. Supreme Court set the bar high for juries considering evidence in the death-penalty phase of trials. Maryland, he argued, uses a preponderance of evidence instead of proof beyond reasonable doubt in considering death-penalty cases.
In May Mr. Glendening, a Democrat, imposed a moratorium on the death penalty until a University of Maryland study on the issue could be completed. The study found that Baltimore County imposes the death penalty more often than any other jurisdiction and that blacks receive the death penalty more often than whites.
Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, lifted the moratorium soon after he took office this year, and the study's findings have come under scrutiny and criticism.
There are 12 inmates on Maryland's death row, including Oken, who is 40. The state's last execution occurred in 1998, when Tyrone Gilliam, 32, was put to death for the 1988 kidnapping and murder of Baltimore County resident Christine Doerfler, 21.
When Oken was convicted of murdering Mrs. Garvin in 1991, he was serving in Maine a life sentence without the possibility of parole for raping and killing Lori Ward, 25, a motel clerk. He fled to Maine after raping and killing his wife's sister, Patricia Hirt, 43, two weeks after he killed Mrs. Garvin.
Mr. Romano says there should be no reprieve for someone like Oken, who admits to being a sexual sadist and killer. "His is the most open-and-shut case on death row," Mr. Romano says.
According to court records, Oken tricked Mrs. Garvin into letting him into her White Marsh home to use the telephone on the night of Oct. 31, 1987. The newlywed's husband had just returned to the naval base in Oceana, Va., after visiting her on a weekend pass.
Oken attacked and raped Mrs. Garvin, then shot her twice. He left her to bleed to death on the floor, where her father found her hours later.
Mr. Romano remembers being jarred awake at 1 a.m. Nov. 1, 1987, by his mother screaming hysterically in the phone. "It was unreal," he says, squeezing his eyes shut.
He recalls his sister's joy about her 4-month-old marriage, her excitement for a new job and her aspiration to become a certified public accountant, for which she was taking courses at Harford Community College.
"People wonder why I am so … bent on wanting him to die," Mr. Romano says, "but why would you not want someone who took away the life of your loved ones to pay for it?"
Mr. Romano left the Catholic Church because of its opposition to capital punishment and its support for Oken's family, "although I still believe in God and I still read the Bible."
He strives to keep his memories alive. The older of his two daughters is named Taylor Dawn Marie, after her aunt. He often talks to Taylor, 7, and Mickenzie, 4, about her.
"I miss her," says Taylor, who was born eight years after Mrs. Garvin died. "I love her."
His sister's death has been hard to bear for his whole family, Mr. Romano says. His parents separated two years ago after 36 years of marriage, he says, because they couldn't take each other's pain any more. "It eats away at you," he says.
Yet he insists he is not seeking revenge but justice.
"This is not about closure because closure will never happen," he says. "My sister will never know how I turned out, or what her nieces look like. … But her killer is getting off easy."

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