- The Washington Times - Monday, June 14, 2004

Condemned murderer Steven Howard Oken’s execution was postponed yesterday until at least this morning while a federal judge in Greenbelt decides whether Maryland’s method of lethal injection is adequate enough to proceed with the sentence.

The decision by U.S. District Judge Peter Messitte, expected at 10 a.m. today, will determine whether Oken’s execution will be carried out this week as scheduled. Yesterday, Judge Messitte heard more than two hours of arguments by Oken’s attorneys and the state before adjourning to render his opinion.

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.

Mrs. Garvin was the first victim in a series of rapes and murders. Two weeks later, he raped, beat and killed his sister-in-law, Patricia A. Hirt, 43. He stole her Mustang and drove to Kittery, Maine, where two days later he raped and killed Lori Ward, 25, a clerk at the motel where he stayed.

Mrs. Garvin’s mother, Betty Romano, attended the hearing. She was angry about the arguments she heard from Oken’s attorneys.

At a press conference outside the courthouse, Mrs. Romano confronted Oken’s lead attorney, Fred Warren Bennett, as he explained his case to reporters.

“My daughter wasn’t provided with the Eighth Amendment,” Mrs. Romano shouted at Mr. Bennett. “You are totally useless.”

Mr. Bennett told Mrs. Romano that there was nothing he could say to her.

Mrs. Romano later said she has waited too long to see Oken executed, and nothing anyone could say — even Oken himself — could change her mind.

“Seventeen years is too late for any apologies,” she said, “and I don’t care to hear anything [Oken] has got to say.”

If Oken is executed, he will be the first person put to death since Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. 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 disparity in the state’s disposition of death sentences.

Oken attorney Jerome Nickerson argued yesterday that Maryland’s lethal-injection process inflicts unnecessary pain and suffering — a violation of the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

He questioned the training of the state’s execution team and the efficiency of the injection system, which delivers a three-drug mixture that renders the subject unconscious and then stops the heart.

He said the state botched its last execution in 1998, with drugs leaking from the intravenous tubes and possibly failing to render Tyrone X. Gilliam unconscious before his heart was stopped.

Gilliam was sentenced to death for the 1989 killing of Christine Doerfler during a carjacking.

Assistant Maryland Attorney General David P. Kennedy told the court there has been no evidence presented that Gilliam suffered “lingering death and torture.” He said all the arguments on Oken’s behalf were merely last-ditch attempts to prolong his life.

“Oken is doing nothing more than throwing up legal obstacles in the way of his execution,” Mr. Kennedy said. “Delaying his execution will deny justice to his three victims, to their families and to the people of this state.”

Oken’s attorneys also have petitioned the Maryland Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court to stop the execution, and they have asked Mr. Ehrlich to spare Oken’s life.

Mr. Ehrlich said he is “thoroughly and thoughtfully” reviewing the case. He said he would keep his campaign promise to allow the legal process to advance convicted murderers toward Maryland’s death chamber, despite the finding of the university study.

“We look at the facts of each case and the legal arguments of each case,” Mr. Ehrlich said.

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