Many wonder when state will next execute someone

February 06, 1992|By Glenn Small

As a jury considered last week whether John Frederick Thanos should be executed for murdering two Middle River teen-agers, a Garrett County sheriff's deputy guarding him groused, "Even if he gets it, they'll never execute him."

That sentiment is echoed by friends and families of murder victims statewide. It has been nearly 31 years since Maryland's last execution, and the 10 men currently on death row have years of appeals left.

Will Maryland ever again execute a killer? Prosecutors say it will happen. But for two devastating Supreme Court rulings, they say, Maryland would be executing criminals on a par with states such as Virginia, Florida and Texas.

Defense attorneys counter that the money the state spends seeking the death penalty could be better spent elsewhere -- such as helping juvenile offenders.

Thomas Saunders, who heads the capital defense division of the state public defenders office, would like to see the death penalty abolished: "It'd put me out of a job,but it would be fine with me."

Thanos, whose death penalty hearing ended in a mistrial last week, brought back bad memories for the Garrett County lawmen who guarded him.

One of their own, Sheriff's Deputy David C. Livengood, was shot seven times -- five times in the back -- in January 1979, when he surprised two men burglarizing a n Army-Navy surplus store in Oakland.

The gunman, Richard Danny Tichnell, was convicted in August 1979 and became the first man sentenced to die under Maryland's revised death penalty statute, enacted in 1978. Thirteen years later, Tichnell, 46, is alive and well and serving a life sentence. After numerous appeals -- his death sentence was overturned three times -- a jury finally gave him life in prison.

Some prosecutors, legislators and relatives and friends of victims say there are too many appeals for killers, that Maryland will never really execute anyone.

"I think the system stinks," said Joni Pistorio, the stepmother of Melody Pistorio, 14, who was slain by Thanos in 1990.

"If he [Thanos] was in Texas or Florida or someplace, he'd be history," Mrs. Pistorio continued. "They're allowed so many appeals [in Maryland] it's ridiculous."

"What is the death penalty for?" she asked. "If they get the death penalty, they should put them to death."

Nathaniel Lipscomb, who raped and killed three women in Baltimore in 1959, was the last man to die in Maryland's gas chamber, 31 years ago this summer.

Two Maryland cases overturned by the Supreme Court effectively voided numerous other death-penalty cases and men death row got new sentencing hearings.

Ruling in a 1987 case, the high court said Maryland prosecutors should not have used victim impact evidence -- emotional statements from the victim's families -- at death penalty hearings.

In the other case, the Supreme Court ruled in 1988 that Maryland prosecutors were using an improper sentencing form in death-penalty cases. Justices said that all cases in which the improper form was used had to be resentenced.

The Supreme Court last summer reversed itself on victim impact evidence, so that information is once again allowed before juries. Prosecutors used such information in the Thanos case.

Once the first Maryland killer is executed, said Richard Rosenblatt, another assistant attorney general, it will be like "priming a pump," and other executions will quickly follow.

But Mr. Saunders countered that in 1991, the prosecutors sought the death penalty in 11 cases and got it only once."

"Juries are just not giving the death penalty," he said.


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