John Thanos: His terrible guilt rubs at our own

MICHAEL OLESKER

March 26, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

John Thanos makes us a little uneasy with our desire for his death.

First he kills others, but then he attempts to kill himself. We wish to see him die, but he keeps trying to beat us to the punch. We hate him for this, because it confuses us. Suicide is a sign of a troubled mind, and we don't want to think of him as troubled, only dangerous.

Just when you think you've got him pegged, though -- a nut, a dangerous one, but clearly a nut -- he declares in public that, given a choice between life and death, "I think I'll take the life without parole, with the possibility for escape."

That's a man with a wry sense of humor, a grand sense of the put-on, or it's someone presenting his insides to us on a platter because everything else has been stripped away.

Three days ago in Leonardtown, St. Mary's County Circuit Judge Marvin Kaminetz locked himself in his chambers and deliberated for 9 1/2 hours.

When he emerged, he sentenced Thanos to die for the 1990 murder of 18-year-old Gregory Taylor, a welder from Hebron killed because Thanos wanted his car.

By Thanos' own confession, we learned that he took Taylor to a secluded dirt logging road near Salisbury and shot him three times in the head at point-blank range.

Is there anyone out here who doesn't want Thanos cremated on the spot?

Hell, no.

Except . . .

In a series of criminal trials -- for the murder of young Taylor, for the kidnapping of a Salisbury cabbie, for the attempted murder of a Salisbury convenience store clerk, for the murders of two Middle River teen-agers -- we've learned of Thanos' miserable, abused childhood, his mental illness, his incarceration at age 15 in an adult prison, his borderline personality disorder.

"We don't kill sick people," argues James McCarthy, one of Thanos' defense attorneys.

Actually, we don't kill anybody at all, not since Nathaniel Lipscomb went to the gas chamber at the Maryland Penitentiary 31 years ago. Murderers come and go. The cells on death row are filled and then unfilled. The appeals processes grind eternally.

And the great thinkers in Maryland's legal system fail utterly to come to grips with the issue of capital punishment.

Case in point: John Thanos, a man who deserves to die multiple deaths, if only if it were possible.

And yet . . .

These suicide attempts of his, this tortured childhood of his, they make us search ourselves. We don't want our criminals to be sick, to be sad, to be troubled. We want them to be criminals, and don't bother us with any mitigating factors.

We don't wish to see ourselves as barbaric -- but that's where we put ourselves if we execute the sick. As a society, why didn't we get to Thanos when he was a kid, when there was still time to save not only him but all those he would murder in years to come?

It's an endless argument we conduct with ourselves each time we look at our chaotic criminal justice system. We want to spend money to beef up police and prisons and courts, but we don't want to pay the price ahead of time: with more money for teachers, for preschool programs, with money to feed poor and hungry kids nutritionally instead of calling ketchup a vegetable, with enough social workers to spot the kids living in hostile home environments.

We deal with problems after the fact. With John Thanos, we missed our shot when we had it, and so we wish to make it up to ourselves now. We remove his troubled history from the equation and assuage our guilt by making him a one-dimensional animal. At that point, it's nothing less than our obligation to punish him.

For the state to do otherwise -- to look at the killings, the kidnapping, the man without a conscience on the prowl, and not put him to death -- is to make itself a passive accessory after the fact.

And yet . . .

Thanos has this record of being belted around when he had no way to defend himself. He has this history of trying to kill himself. (Some would say, trying to commit suicide while in prison is redundant. If we really want him dead, but don't wish to leave blood on the state's hands, why not just give Thanos his dinner and some real utensils? And, if he tries suicide again, let him have it his way.)

Look at the irony: On those occasions Thanos has tried to end his own life, the state has kept him alive. But to what purpose? So we can say we got revenge in our own way?

We all want revenge. We all want to say to prospective criminals everywhere: This is what happens in the state of Maryland when you take a life. We all want to say to the victims' families: We've avenged these killings.

But we lie to ourselves if we think it's as simple as that. We lie if we deny the sickness inside Thanos, and we lie if we think this system of ours -- this system that turns its back on abused children and then tries to play catch-up by hiring more police and building more prisons -- will keep scores of John Thanos act-alikes from haunting our tomorrows.

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