OAKLAND -- In a sudden ruling that stunned a hushed courtroom packed with lawyers and spectators, Garrett County Circuit Judge Fred A. Thayer declared a mistrial yesterday in the sentencing hearing of convicted murderer John Frederick Thanos.
After declaring the mistrial, Judge Thayer abruptly left the courtroom without explaining his ruling. His decision had come immediately after questions were raised about a whether a prosecutor improperly talked to a witness during lunch recess.
It was not clear last night whether the ruling affects only the sentencing hearing under way, or also applies to his conviction last week in the Labor Day 1990 murders of two Middle River teen-agers.
The judge scheduled a hearing for today and Thanos lawyers are expected to make a motion to vacate the conviction.
Yesterday's controversy involved the testimony of Dr. Michael K. Spodak, a Towson psychiatrist called in rebuttal by the state. He described Thanos as a sociopath who knew that killing the teen-agers was wrong and could have stopped himself.
William Kanwisher, one of three public defenders representing Thanos, objected to Dr. Spodak's testimony and asked for a mistrial, saying the psychiatrist had improperly considered a psychiatric evaluation prepared by doctors at Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center.
Under Maryland law, prosecutors may not use statements that defendants make to psychiatrists -- unless the defendant has been read his Miranda rights before speaking.
Thanos had not been read his rights before the interview with Perkins' doctors, so a Baltimore County judge, Dana M. Levitz, had earlier ruled that Thanos' statements in the Perkins report could not be used against him.
Under questioning from Mr. Kanwisher and prosecutor Sue A. Schenning, Dr. Spodak said he "skimmed" the Perkins report but did not read or consider Thanos' statements in rendering his opinion. He said even without the Perkins report his opinion would not change.
Just as Mr. Kanwisher was about to conclude his questioning of Dr. Spodak, another defense attorney leaned over and whispered to him. Mr. Kanwisher then asked Dr. Spodak if he had talked to Mrs. Schenning during lunch.
Dr. Spodak said he had, and admitted that Judge Levitz's ruling on Thanos' statements had come up. He added, however, that it was just a "three- or five-second" exchange he considered insignificant because "I didn't read the statements."
Turning to the judge, Mr. Kanwisher said, "Your Honor, I find what Dr. Spodak had to say shocking."
"I find it incredible," Judge Thayer answered. "I'm going to grant your motion for mistrial. I believe there has been a miscarriage of justice."
Mrs. Schenning asked to be heard on the matter, but Judge Thayer cut her off. "Mrs. Schenning, I have heard all I'm going to hear from the state."
"I don't believe this," an obviously shaken Mrs. Schenning said. "I don't believe this. This is like a nightmare."
Mr. Kanwisher and the two other defense attorneys -- W. Burton Anderson and James McCarthy -- congratulated one another while declining to answer questions.
Mr. Anderson joked, "He's Moe," pointing to Mr. McCarthy, "He's Larry," pointing to Mr. Kanwisher, "And I'm Curly."
While Judge Thayer refused to discuss the case immediately after his ruling, an hour and a half later he issued a statement saying the "mistrial was granted because the jury was exposed to information in a report from Clifton T. Perkins Hospital through a witness, Dr. Michael Spodak."
Parents of the victims were distressed by the decision.
"I don't know, I don't know," said a distraught Joseph E. Pistorio, whose daughter, Melody, 14, had been shot twice in the head and killed by Thanos during a holdup at the Big Red gasoline station in the 9000 block of Pulaski Highway.
"I do know this cost the taxpayers a lot of money," he continued. "I'm destroyed. All I know is it was an 11th-hour technicality. A technicality. That's what they were looking for the whole time."
"This is just going to prolong this," said Carl Marty Winebrenner, the father of Billy, 16, the Big Red gas station clerk killed along with Miss Pistorio. "And a killer is still getting three meals a day. And we're paying for it."
Asked by a reporter if he had anything to say, Thanos responded, "Yeah, it was spiritual intervention there."
Jurors, who were dismissed by Judge Thayer without explanation, appeared stunned and uncertain of what had happened.
"The last second they found a loophole in the law, but I guess fair is fair," said Raymond Bixler, the jury foreman.
Mr. Bixler said he hadn't decided whether Thanos should receive the death penalty. But he was not impressed with testimony about Thanos' traumatic, abusive childhood. "I think he had a bad childhood, but I don't think it gave him the right to do what he did," Mr. Bixler said.
Mr. Bixler also said he was unimpressed with Thanos' own speech to jurors Wednesday in which he preached about God.
"It took a good bit for me to keep from cracking a smile," Mr. Bixler said.