Killer of Arbutus couple tries to avoid gas chamber BALTIMORE COUNTY

August 10, 1993|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,Staff Writer

A retired professor of anesthesiology who witnessed Maryland's last execution said during a hearing challenging the state's use of the gas chamber that the execution reminded him of a 1948 visit to a Nazi death camp.

Dr. Sylvan M. Shane, a retired dentist and former professor at the Johns Hopkins University, described the struggling of Nathaniel Lipscomb, who was put to death June 9, 1961.

"When I saw that and I thought back to what I had seen at Auschwitz, I thought this is probably the most inhumane thing I had ever seen," he said.

Dr. Shane was one of three witnesses at yesterday's hearing in Baltimore County Circuit Court. They were called on behalf of Donald Thomas, who was convicted and sentenced to death a decade ago for the murders of an Arbutus couple, Donald and Sarah Spurling, and the rape of a female boarder. The conviction has been upheld by the Maryland Court of Appeals.

Since last year, two states have changed their method of execution to include a choice of lethal injection -- leaving Maryland as the one state that offers only the gas chamber.

Noting that Maryland's General Assembly failed to pass a similar measure in its past session, defense attorneys H. Mark Stichel and Donna Shearer mounted an attack arguing that in light of the changing fashion in carrying out the death penalty in America, using cyanide gas is unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment.

The defense wants Judge Thomas J. Bollinger to see a videotape of an execution in California's gas chamber. The tape is under seal in a federal court there and arguments to release it aren't scheduled until September.

The judge said he would await the outcome of those arguments, then hear closing arguments on Thomas' petition. He agreed to order tests for brain damage for the defendant.

Assistant State's Attorney James O'Conor Gentry Jr. said the state appeals courts already have considered and rejected Thomas' argument. However, he called in an expert from the Army's Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense at Aberdeen Proving Ground yesterday.

Dr. Steven I. Baskin, a toxicologist with expertise in the effects of cyanide and nerve gas, said prisoners in the gas chamber would be dead within seconds. Further, he said, "Cyanide does not cause pain. Just the opposite: It appears that it prevents pain."

"You just run out of gas, kiddo," he told Mr. Stichel on cross-examination.

Dr. Janine L. Good, a professor and neurologist at University of Maryland Medical Center and at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center, reviewed eyewitness accounts of executions and said that although some violent movement such as seizures and head banging could be made while unconscious, reports of mouthed prayers, clenched fists and "shrieks of terror" are not involuntary. "Saying a prayer: That's certainly conscious," Dr. Good said. "I'd probably say the Our Father."

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