Thanos review sought Governor to name special counsel in release of inmate

October 09, 1990|By William F. Zorzi Jr.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer, spurred by a challenge from the prison clerk suspended for releasing John F. Thanos early, said yesterday that he would appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the release of the rapist and robber accused of killing three people after being freed.

Mr. Schaefer, who was in Princess Anne yesterday to dedicate a rest stop along U.S. 13, just a mile from the Eastern Correctional Institution, said he would launch an independent investigation into the early release of Thanos from the prison, after records clerk John P. O'Donnell, 50, charged he was being made the "scapegoat" in the case.

Mr. O'Donnell, who signed Thanos' release papers April 5 as the Somerset County prison's correctional records supervisor, was suspended without pay Thursday, pending a dismissal hearing. At the time of his suspension, he was a correctional officer at ECI.

That suspension was the result of an internal investigation into Thanos' April 5 release from prison, about 18 months early, after Mr. O'Donnell applied a new Division of Correction policy to shorten Thanos' seven-year sentence on a robbery conviction.

State correction officials have refused to tell Mr. O'Donnell what specific charges have been lodged against him, other than to say that they stem from Thanos' release.

Thanos, 41, of Joppa, was arrested Sept. 4 after a six-day crime spree that left three people dead. He is being held at the Worcester County Detention Center, charged with three murders, two robberies and a host of other crimes.

At the rest stop yesterday, after a television reporter asked Mr. Schaefer about a possible "cover-up" of the circumstances surrounding Thanos' release, the governor called Mr. O'Donnell over to talk.

Mr. O'Donnell, who said he attended the ribbon cutting yesterday merely to see the governor, then explained that he was being blamed in the Thanos case for mistakenly applying the March 9 Division of Correction policy, which governs so-called "good time" credits to inmates' overlapping sentences.

The problem in the Thanos case, he said, lay with a flaw in the wording of the policy, not his application of it.

Mr. O'Donnell offered Mr. Schaefer a lengthy explanation of what happened, including that he had specifically received approval for Thanos' release from headquarters personnel and an assistant warden at ECI. Then the following exchange took place, according to a tape supplied by WBOC-TV in Salisbury:

"I want to know who covered up, because I don't like what happened," the governor said, referring to the reporter's earlier query about a possible "cover-up."

"I beg your pardon?" Mr. O'Donnell said.

"I don't like what happened," Mr. Schaefer repeated.

"Well, do something about it. You're the governor of the state of Maryland," Mr. O'Donnell said.

"I'm going to," Mr. Schaefer pledged. "I'm going to try."

The two men continued the exchange briefly before Mr. Schaefer asked: "What would you like me to do? How would you, what would you want me to do? Shall I turn it over to a special prosecutor?"

"That would be a very good idea. I would suggest it," Mr. O'Donnell said.

"Good, I'll do it. I'll do it. Will do," Mr. Schaefer said, walking away to continue his campaign tour of the Eastern Shore, as Mr. O'Donnell thanked him.

A spokesman for Mr. Schaefer last night could not explain exactly what the governor had in mind -- that is, whether the "special prosecutor" would head a criminal investigation into the matter or whether an independent counsel would head a civil review of the Thanos case.

In any event, Mr. O'Donnell, who is scheduled to appear tomorrow before a state personnel hearing officer for his suspension appeal, was satisfied with the governor's response.

"My feeling is that Governor Schaefer is an honest and sincere man trying to accept his responsibilities honorably," Mr. O'Donnell said. "As a result of our meeting today, he has for the first time become fully aware of everything that was involved in the release of John Frederick Thanos.

"I still have enough faith and confidence in the system that the parties who are to blame will be identified, and the responsibility for what has occurred will rest entirely on their shoulders, ultimately," he said.

Bishop L. Robinson, secretary of public safety and correctional services, has said that Thanos was released early by mistake, and that the new policy on calculating good-time credits for overlapping sentences was misapplied in his case.

Mr. Robinson has said Thanos' release date was calculated in error, when 543 good-time credits from an earlier rape sentence were applied to the robbery sentence he was serving at the time of his April 5 release. That release occurred about 18 months earlier than it would have, before the new policy.

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