“We’ve been to hell and back”
Davida Oken is the mother of Steven Oken, a Maryland death row prisoner who had an execution date set for early March, but won a stay. She talked to John Coursey about her fight for her son’s life.
What is it like having a son on death row?
Having a son on death row is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to face. Sometimes you think that you’re dreaming and you’ll wake up from this horrible nightmare. It’s impossible to convey the pain and fear that our family faces at this time, except to say that I hope no mother ever has to go through what we are going through right now.
I’ve learned to appreciate every day that I can share with Steve. Every visit with Steve and every phone call is a bonus to me. My family and I have had to reassess our priorities. There are many ups and downs — every hearing and appeal can either make you happy or very sad.
When Steven received his stay of execution from the Maryland Court of Appeals, I felt that a tremendous weight had been lifted from me. The feeling of gloom disappeared and I felt hope, even though it may be temporary. I hope that the Supreme Court will hear his case and realize that there are many problems with the death penalty in Maryland and in the United States.
Maryland is in the midst of a big debate over whether to continue executions. From your experience, what would you tell Marylanders about their state’s death penalty system?
The Maryland Court of Appeals has stated that “the legislature needs to look into new sentencing guidelines in issuing a death penalty.” The death penalty in Maryland is now based on a preponderance of evidence rather than absolute certainty — beyond a reasonable doubt — to kill a human being. Stronger standards are used to turn off a person’s electricity than to give a death penalty in Maryland.
Additionally, Steven was serving a life without parole sentence in Maine before he was given the death penalty in Maryland. We believe that the first sentence should have been carried out before he can serve this death penalty sentence in Maryland. This was strictly a political move by the governor of Maryland.
Also, the governor has ordered a study to look into the administration of the death penalty in the state, and this study isn’t over until late into this year. Why are the prosecutors so anxious to kill without seeing the results of the study?
Where do you find hope in the fight for your son’s life?
I look for hope for Steven in the Supreme Court’s decision on the applicability of the Apprendi ruling on death penalty cases showing violations of due process.
I also believe that the pain of the victims’ family will not be addressed by Steven’s execution. Why do we have to face yet another murder, this time by the state of Maryland? What will this heal? Certainly it won’t bring the victim back, but it will make me and my family new victims.
We’ve been to hell and back — what about our healing? If there wasn’t a death penalty, we would have healed, and so would the families of the victim, 14 years ago.
The Fight That We’re Waging
by John Coursey
Maryland’s prosecutors have made it clear that they won’t give up the death penalty without a fight. So we in the Maryland and Washington, D.C., chapters of the Campaign have taken on their challenge, organizing a number of actions and events this year.
In February, we held a series of Live from Death Row forums — under the title “The Maryland Moratorium Tour.” Among the tour stops were George Washington University, Mount Hope Baptist Church, Georgetown University, Towson University, Johns Hopkins University, Goucher College, Loyola University, and University of Maryland at College Park.
After a death warrant was signed for Steven Oken, we organized a press conference — and another shortly afterward when 19-year-old Courtney Bryant was sentenced to death, making him the youngest person to receive such a sentence in Maryland since 1959. And on February 23, we plan to march to Baltimore’s supermax prison, where Maryland death row inmates are housed.
We’ve also started a campaign to raise funds to put up a billboard in the heart of Baltimore — with the message “Stop Executions in Maryland.” If you’d like to contribute, please send checks, payable to the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, to the following address: CEDP, P.O. Box 5218, Takoma Park, MD 20913.