Maryland’s highest court yesterday upheld the way the state imposes the death penalty, affirming the death sentence for Baltimore County killer Steven Oken. The Baltimore Sun says that the 4-3 decision held that a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year in an Arizona case does not affect Maryland.
Oken argued that the ruling meant that Maryland’s system was unconstitutional. If he had won, at least eight of Maryland’s 10 death row inmates might have been entitled to new sentencing hearings. The family of Dawn Marie Garvin, 20, a newlywed tortured and killed by Oken in 1987, greeted the ruling with as much caution as joy. “I can’t say I’m excited because you never know what happens,” said her brother, Fred Romano. “It’s a good thing. But the history of this case is whenever a good thing happens, as soon as you turn around a bad thing happens.” Oken also killed his sister-in-law and a motel clerk.
“I really thought they were going to [overturn] the law,” said Jane Henderson, co-director of the Quixote Center, which opposes the death penalty.
At issue was how a jury or a judge decides whether to impose a death sentence. For a convicted murderer to be sentenced to death in Maryland, prosecutors must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant directly caused the victim’s death. Prosecutors also must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that there is at least one “aggravating factor” – that the murder was committed during the course of a rape or kidnapping, for instance–and that the aggravating factors outweigh mitigating factors.