A Baltimore County judge paved the way yesterday for Maryland's first execution in nearly five years when he agreed to sign a death warrant for convicted murderer Steven H. Oken. It is the first capital case to move forward under Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., whose entry into office last week effectively ended the state's moratorium on the death penalty.
Oken, 40, who was sentenced to death in 1991 for the sexual assault and murder of a 20-year- old White Marsh newlywed in 1987, is scheduled to die by lethal injection the week of March 17, according to his lawyers.
"We knew that there was a substantial possibility that the warrant would be signed as soon as Governor Ehrlich took office," said Fred W. Bennett, Oken's attorney.
Then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening halted executions in May, saying it was necessary to give lawmakers the chance to analyze the results of a two-year University of Maryland study on the use of the state's death penalty.
"Consider the moratorium lifted," said Shareese Deleaver, a spokeswoman for Ehrlich.
Baltimore County State's Attorney Sandra A. O'Connor said her office would have asked Judge John G. Turnbull II to sign Oken's death warrant last May. "We've been on hold since the moratorium," she said.
But even with Ehrlich in office and the warrant promised within the next week, O'Connor said it was not certain that Oken's execution would go forward in seven weeks.
"Anything can happen in these cases," O'Connor said.
Bennett said he will file motions in Baltimore County Circuit Court challenging the state's death statute in an attempt to halt his client's execution. He said at least one of those motions is based on the University of Maryland study, which found "systemic disparities" in the state's use of the death penalty.
That study, released this month, found that defendants who kill whites are significantly more likely to receive a death sentence than killers of nonwhites. It also found that jurisdiction greatly affects a defendant's chances of ending up on death row.
Of the 12 men awaiting execution in Maryland, nine, including Oken, are from Baltimore County. Eight are black, and all were convicted of killing whites. Oken is white, as was his victim.
Because of his race, and because his crimes were so brutal - in addition to the killing of Dawn Marie Garvin, for which he received the death sentence, Oken was convicted of murdering his sister-in-law and a college student - Oken has become something of a rallying point for death penalty supporters.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller has often referred to Oken when defending the state's death penalty statute.
Yesterday, moratorium advocates said it was not surprising that O'Connor was pushing Oken's case as the first one likely to reach Ehrlich's desk.
"In many ways, this just shows the politics that drives this issue," said Jane Henderson of the Quixote Center, a faith-based organization that has fought to abolish the death penalty. "His case obscures the issues of systemic bias that we've been trying to focus on."
But O'Connor said her reasoning was simple. Oken is the only Baltimore County death row inmate who has exhausted all of his appeals, she said, and is therefore the only defendant for whom they can reasonably seek a death warrant.
Wesley Eugene Baker, a Baltimore County defendant who was scheduled to die the month Glendening halted executions, has another appeal pending, O'Connor said. Her office is awaiting the Court of Appeals' decision in that case.
Death penalty opponents say Oken's case underscores the importance of quick legislative action to extend the moratorium.
Del. Salima S. Marriott and Sen. Ralph M. Hughes, both Baltimore Democrats, have filed emergency bills seeking to extend the moratorium. They had hoped for General Assembly action on the measures before Ehrlich's inauguration.
Sun staff writer Howard Libit contributed to this article.