The fight to save Steven Oken

By: Mike Stark

A statewide coalition of groups in the Maryland and D.C. area has stepped up the fight to stop the June 14th scheduled execution of Steven Oken--the first state-sponsored murder in Maryland since 1998.

Maryland, which is the only state outside of Illinois to have imposed a moratorium on executions, is intent on killing Oken. But Maryland’s death penalty is still the mess that it was before former Gov. Parris Glendening imposed the moratorium. A comprehensive study commissioned by Glendening found that the state’s execution system was riddled with racism and arbitrariness, and that it was sending innocent people to their death.

But prosecutors and death penalty advocates are hoping to repackage and sell their broken system by killing Steven Oken--who has admitted his guilt in the 1991 rape and killing of Dawn Garvin, a white woman, in Baltimore County. If Oken is executed, it will be the first execution since Maryland’s new governor, Robert Ehrlich, overturned Glendening’s moratorium--and the first state killing since Tyrone X Gilliam was executed in 1998.

Throughout this fight, death penalty opponents have pointed out that taking Steven’s life will not restore Dawn Garvin’s life, but will only create more victims. We have also reminded the public that the study of Maryland’s death penalty commissioned by Glendening found that accused killers of white victims receive death far more often than those accused of killing non-whites. That study also found that suburban, affluent Baltimore County accounts for a disproportionate share of death penalty cases and has one of the highest post-conviction reversal rates in death cases than of any county in the country.

Groups like the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International and others have organized numerous events, including a press conference, town hall meetings in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., a petition campaign and a demonstration to oppose Steven’s execution. Over 100 people attended a town meeting at the Takoma Park Presbyterian Church in Maryland to hear exonerated death row prisoners Shujaa Graham and Darby Tillis, Washington Wizards basketball player Etan Thomas, Delegate Salima Siler-Marriott, members of Steven’s legal team, and other prominent abolitionists speak out against the execution.

"When the state of Maryland executes...when they kill, they will be doing it in your name," said Diann Rust-Tierney, director of the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project. "Do you stand for answering violence with violence?" she asked. "No," the audience shouted in unison.

Days later, over 30 people gathered at Mount Hope Baptist Church to hear Davida Oken, Steven’s mother; Pastor Donald and Gwen Bates, the sister and brother-in-law of death row inmate Vernon Evans; and John Gilliam-Price, brother-in-law of executed inmate Tyrone Gilliam. These family members shared their personal experiences and expressed the emotional pain of having a loved one on death row. Shujaa Graham also spoke on the panel.

In the courts, Steven’s legal team has mounted an aggressive challenge to Maryland’s lethal injection procedures. The second drug used, Pavulon, is banned by the American Veterinarian Association for euthanizing animals. Also, evidence has surfaced that Tyrone X Gilliam’s 1998 execution was likely botched, resulting in a tortured death for Tyrone. In Steven’s stay of execution request to the Maryland Court of Appeals, lawyers Fred Bennett and Michael Lawlor wrote that "due to the insufficiency of the execution protocols and training of execution team members, the killing of Steven Oken will amount to little more than torture." Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld an Alabama death row prisoner’s challenge to the state’s execution procedures.

The Maryland Court of Appeals is currently reviewing these arguments. The abolitionist movement in Maryland is determined keep up the pressure. As the New Abolitionist was going to press, activists were busy making phone calls and hand writing placards to take to a June 5th rally and march to be held out side the Supermax prison where Oken is held. Abolish the death penalty once and for all!