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June 15, 2004

What's Your Stand on Capital Punishment?

John P. Snyder

Now 42 years old, Steven Howard Oken went on quite a killing spree in 1987. In the space of two weeks, he killed a 20-year-old newlywed, his 38-year-old sister-in-law and, later, a motel clerk in Maine. It has taken 17 years for Mr. Oken to get this far. As this is being written, he is scheduled to die at the Maryland State Penitentiary in Baltimore sometime this week.

Does he deserve to die for his crimes?

I would suspect a large majority of Marylanders would answer with a resounding YES. But a number of opponents of capital punishment are pushing a rationale that casts a doubt on the Maryland form of execution - lethal injection. Their job is made tougher by the facts surrounding the Oken case. Three grisly murders, with no remorse shown by the white, upper middle class citizen from Baltimore County, make for an unappealing cause.

And yet, appeals have been made to spare Mr. Oken's life. They claim the three chemicals inserted into his body will constitute cruel and unusual punishment. They will claim that his execution will not deter further killings. Although the death penalty is so rarely played out, who is to know? They submit that the cost of keeping him alive is smaller than the cost of killing him.

Some insist state sponsored killing is just plain wrong.

Personally, I am conflicted on this point. Some feel that if you are pro-life, as I am, it is terribly inconsistent to favor the death penalty. To this I respond, please, do not put Mr. Oken's life on the same moral plane as an unborn fetus.

Appealing, too, is the argument that killing Mr. Oken would be too easy. Let 's make him rot in prison for the rest of his life. That would be the real cruel and unusual punishment. Yet, Mr. Oken gets to watch TV and correspond with his family while in isolation. Families of the victims cannot say the same for their loved ones.

It seems to me that after 17 years of winding through the Maryland Court system the focus on the perpetrator has overshadowed the victims. And Oken's legal challenges to the methods of execution as being cruel seem hollow given what he meted out to the three young ladies who sadly crossed his path 17 years ago.

Mr. Oken's case also fails the "society failed him' test. He is white, so the racial card is out. He has had first rate legal representation.

The facts are conclusive. He has had 17 years to express remorse. He has not shown any at all.

His death will not undo what he has done. Throw out the emotional and irrational defense of the three-time murderer and rapist. The people of Maryland deserve to have some protection, some assurances, that those who kill others face the possibility of paying the ultimate price for acts against society.

Other death row cases may have extenuating circumstances that will make deliberations more difficult than the Oken case.

The end result is this. If Steven Oken doesn't qualify for the death penalty, no one will. I hope the Gov. Robert Ehrlich refuses clemency and allows this execution to happen.

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