Accuracy in Media

It took the state of Maryland 17 years to put convicted killer Steven Oken to death for a triple murder.  But the legal tricks that delayed justice in this case did not bother the editorial page editor of the Washington Post.  This paper ran an editorial objecting not to the legal maneuvers that kept Oken alive at taxpayer expense but to the state exercising capital punishment.  The Post raised other objections to the death penalty in Maryland, saying that “murderers whose victims are white are far more likely to face capital charges than those who kill non-whites.”  The Post did not explain that Oken was white and all three of his victims were white.  So the racial argument was completely irrelevant in this case.

By contrast, the Washington Times ran an editorial raising concern about the 17-year wait.  It called this an ordeal for the victims’ families.  It noted that the judge who granted Oken another last-minute delay in his execution was an appointee of President Clinton.  Betty Romano, the mother of one of Steven Oken’s victims, Dawn Marie Garvin, is now working with Maryland State Senator Nancy Jacobs to introduce legislation that would shorten the appeals process in death penalty cases.

Oken himself sent a letter to Governor Robert Ehrlich asking for his life to be saved.  He sent copies to Alan Feiler of The Baltimore Jewish Times and Julie Bycowicz of The Baltimore Sun.  Feiler had visited Oken several times in prison and wrote stories about how Oken had discovered his “spirituality.”  Feiler also wrote about Oken’s financial problems, a troubled marriage, and the drug and alcohol abuse which preceded the murders.

Julie Bycowicz covered the case extensively, running such stories as a June 14 article on how Oken’s mother said that Steven “reacted badly when his parents told him at age 10 or 11 that he had been adopted.”  His mother, Davida Oken, also said that her son started “running away from a lot of things. He used drugs?cocaine, marijuana, prescription medications?and abused alcohol.”  All of these factors were supposed to help explain why he became a killer and rapist.

Fred Romano, the father of Dawn Marie Garvin, noted that “Accused and convicted murderers are granted considerable media coverage, while victims are reduced to a single still photograph and a body-bag shot on the evening news.  If they could just see the crime scenes and absorb the graphic details of how savagely victims were murdered, I suspect opinions might change.”

Reporters were allowed in to watch Oken’s execution.  An AP reporter described the procedure as peaceful and uneventful.  AP said, “While strapped down on a blue padded table in the execution chamber, Oken smiled occasionally while talking with the prison chaplain.”  By contrast, there are no detailed descriptions of how Oken’s victims died. Dawn Marie Garvin was 20-years old.  An Army secretary and accounting student at Harford Community College, she was just married. Patricia A. Hirt, 43-years old, was a hospital administrative secretary. She was found in a ditch.  The third victim, Lori Ward, was 25-years old. She was found dead in a motel.

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