The family of Dawn Marie Garvin, who was raped and murdered in her own home in White Marsh, Md., more than 15 years ago, has had justice cruelly snatched by the powers that be in Maryland. On Tuesday, the Maryland Court of Appeals voted 5-2 to delay the execution of Garvin’s killer, Steven Oken. He had been scheduled to die the week of March 17. But, in a terse four-paragraph ruling, the court majority held that Maryland law does not require juries to give sufficient weight to mitigating factors that might discourage them from imposing a death sentence.
Also, Oken’s lawyer plans to raise yet another issue: that a recently released study of the state’s death-penalty law shows that it was being applied in a racially and geographically “discriminatory” way. For example, prosecutors in Baltimore and Prince George’s County, where a high proportion of murder victims are black, rarely ask for capital punishment. By contrast, State’s Attorney Sandra O’Connor in Baltimore County, where a higher percentage of murder victims are white, seeks the death penalty in nearly every eligible case. Oken is white, however, and so was Miss Garvin. Another appeal likely will delay his execution beyond May.
This is a gross miscarriage of justice. As we’ve noted before, Oken’s crimes were unspeakable, and even his most vociferous defenders do not deny his guilt. He raped, tortured and murdered Dawn Garvin on Nov. 1, 1987. Fifteen days later, he did the same to his sister-in-law, Patricia Hirt in Baltimore County, and the following day he killed Lori Ward, a hotel clerk in Kittery, Maine. The Garvin killing is Oken’s sole capital punishment case.
In April 1989, Oken pleaded guilty to the Ward murder in Maine, which does not have the death penalty. For nearly 14 years, Oken has appealed his Maine conviction on grounds that he received ineffective legal assistance. Oken has raised one procedural objection after another, nearly all of which have been rejected by appellate courts. Practically the only thing this rapist-murderer hasn’t challenged is the overwhelming, incontrovertible evidence that he committed three murders.
Dawn Garvin’s brother, Fred Romano, criticized Maryland Attorney General Joseph Curran for openly denouncing the death penalty while Oken’s death sentence is on appeal. Mr. Romano suggested that the court’s stay of Oken’s execution stems in part from the fact that Mr. Curran, who is responsible for enforcing state laws, is less than enthusiastic about carrying out this responsibility. Indeed, it is difficult to have confidence in Maryland’s death-penalty appeals when the attorney general is a liberal ideologue who thinks capital punishment is always wrong.