By Sarah Hoye and Justin Palk
ANNAPOLIS – A death warrant will be signed by the end of today for Steven Oken, his defense lawyer said Tuesday, making him the first Maryland man to face execution during new Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s term.
Baltimore County Circuit Judge John G. Turnbull II is expected to sign Oken’s death warrant by the end of business today after a request from prosecutor Anne Bropts, said Mike Lawlor, an associate with Fred Bennett, lead counsel for Oken.
The death warrant signals an end to a death penalty moratorium imposed by former Gov. Parris N. Glendening in May 2002. Glendening issued an executive order for a stay of execution for death row inmate Wesley E. Baker pending review of the results from a University of Maryland study on racial and geographical disparities in the application of the death penalty.
As a result of the stay of execution, death sentences were not up for review by Glendening before the study was finished.
The study was released Jan. 7 and it found racial and geographic bias in the application of the ultimate penalty.
Unlike Glendening, Ehrlich, who took office last week, has consistently said he would lift any ban on executions – which, technically, applies only to Baker because a stay of execution requires an executive action to overturn. Once a death warrant is signed, Ehrlich has the obligation to review it. He could allow the sentence to proceed, commute the sentence or issue a stay. Leaving the State House Tuesday, Ehrlich declined to discuss the case saying he would “talk about (Oken) tomorrow.” Oken, convicted in 1991 in Baltimore County Circuit Court for the 1987 murder of Dawn Marie Garvin, could be put to death by lethal injection during the week of March 17, 2003, according to Bennett. Bennett confirmed a death warrant was requested and said, “We have additional motions that we’ll be filing.”
“I received a call from the judge today . . . that the state had filed a motion for the warrant and the real question was timing” of the execution date, Bennett said.
Bennett had asked for the maximum amount of time allowed before the execution to prepare his motions. He plans to raise issues related to the university study showing disparities, as well as a constitutional challenge against the death penalty. Turnbull could not be reached for comment. “The system is broken, ” said Delegate Salima S. Marriott, D-Baltimore, a leading General Assembly death penalty opponent and sponsor of legislation to reinstitute the moratorium. “I am basically a firm supporter of the moratorium because with the study in front of us we know there is a systemic problem,” Marriott said. “No one should be executed until we have taken every measure to remove the bias that currently exists. This is an unfortunate situation.” “I’m always concerned, and now I’m particularly concerned. The General Assembly needs to have an opportunity to review the study,” she added. Fred and Vicki Romano, of Harford, founders of the Maryland Coalition for State Executions, are glad the wait is over. “I hope he enjoys his ride to hell. I hope it burns. I am ecstatic,” said Romano, the brother of Oken’s victim. “My quest does not end here. I am here for the victim’s families. This brings justice for my sister but my mission isn’t over.” “I am so happy. (The Romano) family has been through so much. And I am glad that this is finally over,” said Vicki Romano. “(Oken) did it and he should pay the consequences. Maybe now the Oken family will feel the pain that the Romano family has felt,” she added.