State admits freeing Thanos was an error

September 26, 1990|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,Evening Sun Staff

Marty Winebrenner was devastated by the slaying of his only child, 16-year-old Billy. Now he says he is angry -- incensed that a mistake by the state prison system allowed the release 18 months too soon of the man accused of killing his son.

"I'm mad, I'm damn mad. We don't want to see it happen to other people because of a slip-up like this," Winebrenner said.

"It was 16 years of working two and three jobs to give him the extra things I never had," said Winebrenner, whose son was gunned down several weeks ago in a Middle River convenience store. "Then one day, some man comes along and takes it away from you. I don't want to see that happen to anyone else."

Public safety Secretary Bishop L. Robinson Jr. told the House Appropriations Committee in Annapolis yesterday that John Frederick Thanos, now accused in the slayings of Billy Winebrenner and two others, was released 543 days too early due to a miscalculation of the "good-time" credits he had earned while in prison.

Thanos, 41, was released from the Eastern Correctional Institution last April. He is charged with two murders, one attempted murder, two robberies and various other crimes during an alleged crime spree between Aug. 29 and Sept. 4.

Thanos is charged with murder in the deaths of 18-year-old Gregory Allen Taylor of Salisbury and Billy Winebrenner's girlfriend -- 14-year-old Melody Pistorio of Middle River. Billy Winebrenner did not die until six days after he was shot and Thanos was originally charged with attempted murder in that case. After young Winebrenner's death, Baltimore County prosecutors said they will ask a grand jury to bring another

murder charge.

Robinson told lawmakers he is considering bringing administrative charges against the state employees who miscalculated Thanos' release date. He declined, however, to say who or how many employees may be facing disciplinary charges in the case.

Acting Corrections Commissioner Elmanus Herndon said the Division of Corrections' headquarters had approved Thanos' release date, which was calculated at the Eastern Shore prison.

Assistant Attorney General Alan D. Eason said that if corrections employees were negligent the state could be liable in any civil suit that might be brought by relatives of the three people allegedly slain by the suspect.

State Del. John W. Douglass, D-City, told Eason, "Clearly, we're going to be the defendant in some suit."

"I think that's an accurate statement," Eason responded.

Told of Robinson's testimony that Thanos had been released too soon, Melody Pistorio's father, Joseph E. Pistorio, said, "It does make it harder knowing that the state made an error. Their error cost three people's lives in this state. We're three families that have to suffer for the state's error. I don't understand how they operate. From everything I've been reading, they're screwed up."

Donna Dillon, Melody's mother, declined comment. "I have legal counsel that advised me not to," she said.

Thanos, who has spent almost half his life in state prison, was released from the Eastern Correctional Institution in Somerset County April 5, after serving about four years of a seven-year robbery sentence. That sentence began in 1986, only 26 days after he was released from prison, where he had served 17 years of a 21-year sentence for a 1969 rape.

The confusion apparently began when prison officials calculated the date Thanos was to be released from the seven-year robbery term. To determine a release date, officials shave off a specified amount of time for good behavior, as well as for such things as participation in training and educational programs.

By misapplying a new prison policy, officials incorrectly reduced Thanos' sentence by 543 days for good behavior that he had actually earned during the previous 17-year rape term, Robinson said.

The policy, adopted only a month before Thanos' April release, allows good-time credits from one prison sentence to be applied to a second prison sentence if the two terms overlap.

Thanos' two prison terms did not overlap, but the officials who calculated his release date apparently thought they did.

Officials apparently applied the policy because Thanos's initial, 21-year rape sentence still had four years left on it when he was sent back to prison on a seven-year robbery sentence.

The "overlapping" policy, however, should not have been applied to Thanos, because his 21-year rape sentence officially terminated when he was released in 1986, Eason said.

"The dimunition in sentence credits he earned on his first sentence were incorrectly applied to his second sentence," Robinson said.

Robinson acknowledged that calculating release dates can be complicated because many prisoners are serving multiple sentences.

"It's a nightmare," he said.

Del. Timothy F. Maloney, D-Prince George's, urged Robinson to clarify the regulations and rely on computers to calculate the dates.

"You should not have to be a brain surgeon to figure out when a person's release date is," Maloney said.

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