Thanos conviction to stand despite sentence mistrial Judge rules death penalty a possibility at new hearing

February 01, 1992|By Glenn Small | Glenn Small,Sun Staff Correspondent

OAKLAND -- John Frederick Thanos' conviction in the murders of two Middle River teen-agers will stand despite a mistrial during his sentencing hearing, and he still faces a possible death penalty when he is resentenced.

Garrett County Circuit Judge Fred A. Thayer, who abruptly declared a mistrial Thursday afternoon, yesterday rejected a defense request to punish prosecutors for alleged improper conduct by barring them from seeking the death penalty.

Judge Thayer said a new sentencing hearing must be scheduled and another jury selected to decide whether Thanos should get the death penalty or life in prison.

But no new sentencing date was set yesterday, and with Thanos facing trial March 9 on the Eastern Shore for the slaying of Gregory A. Taylor, 18, a Salisbury-area man, no one could say how soon a resentencing could take place.

Judge Thayer had initially appeared to declare the mistrial over what defense attorneys called an improper lunchtime conversation between prosecutor Sue A. Schenning and a witness, Towson psychiatrist Michael K. Spodak. But yesterday the judge said Mrs. Schenning had done nothing improper.

"The conversation itself was innocent," Judge Thayer said. "But it gave the appearance of impropriety. I do not believe Mrs. Schenning coached [Dr. Spodak]."

However, the judge did have problems with the testimony of Dr. Spodak, who described Thanos as a sociopath who knew that killing the teen-agers was wrong and could have stopped himself.

Defense attorneys complained that Dr. Spodak had improperly used a December 1990 psychiatric evaluation in which Thanos made statements to doctors without having been read his Miranda rights.

Under state law, prosecutors cannot use such statements. Dr. Spodak testified that he had "skimmed" but not read or considered Thanos' statements. But Judge Thayer said that without knowing what weight Dr.Spodak gave to the report and what effect, if any, it would have on the jury, a declaration of mistrial was necessary.

Ironically, jury foreman Raymond Bixler told the prosecutor Thursday night that the jury would have given Thanos the death penalty without the testimony of Dr. Spodak.

The jury of seven men and five women had convicted Thanos Jan. 24 of robbing and killing Billy Winebrenner, 16, a gas station clerk, and the youth's girlfriend, Melody Pistorio, 14, in a Labor Day 1990 holdup at the Big Red gasoline station in the 9000 block of Pulaski Highway.

Thursday, it appeared to Mrs. Schenning, two sheriff's deputies and members of the victims' families that Judge Thayer had been angry over Mrs. Schenning's lunchtime conversation with Dr. Spodak. He had not let Mrs. Schenning explain the incident.

Yesterday, after Mrs. Schenning explained herself, the judge said he "accepted her proffer" and repeated his explanation for the mistrial.

State's Attorney Sandra A. O'Connor said she was pleased that Judge Thayer gave the state a chance to respond, clearing Mrs. Schenning of any wrongdoing.

"We were concerned that there was a misconception that Mrs. Schenning had done something improper," Mrs. O'Connor said.

"Ms. Schenning is an excellent attorney. . . . I trust her with this case and I trust her until this case is over," she said.

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