Execution by lethal gas is antiquated, inhumane


September 30, 1993|By WILEY A. HALL

In 1961, Dr. Sylvan Shane witnessed the state-ordered execution of Nathaniel Lipscomb at the Maryland Penitentiary. Ever since, Dr. Shane has campaigned against execution by lethal gas.

"What I saw scarred me for life," Dr. Shane said yesterday. He is a retired anesthesiologist and dentist and a professor emeritus at Johns Hopkins Medical School.

"With lethal gas, they struggle, they cough, they strain, they fight," Dr. Shane said, his voice rising with indignation. "It is a terrible -- terrible! -- kind of thing to see. The state of Maryland should not be involved in anything this -- this crude!"

Crude? Well, perhaps. But Maryland may be just weeks away from its first execution since June 9, 1961, when Lipscomb was put to death for rape and murder.

On Monday, a Garrett County judge signed a death warrant for John Frederick Thanos, 43, who was convicted of the 1990 murders of three teen-agers during a crime spree. The judge ordered Thanos executed in Maryland's gas chamber during the first week of November, and Thanos has said he is tired of fighting the death sentence.

Here's the dilemma: Opinion polls indicate that a majority of Marylanders favor the death penalty. But they want it fairly applied and humanely administered. And Maryland has been trying to meet those two standards for decades, without success.

In the early 1920s, for instance, the state outlawed public executions, moving them behind prison walls because people seemed to be enjoying the spectacle too much.

In the 1950s, Maryland switched from death by hanging to lethal gas because gas seemed more humane.

In the 1970s, after the Supreme Court first outlawed, then reinstated, the death penalty, Maryland adopted a complex system that, among other things, called for mandatory appellate review of each case in an attempt to ensure fairness.

Yet these measures have not removed qualms about capital punishment.

Support for the death penalty hovers between 60 and 70 percent, but even Marylanders who support it in principle have grave misgivings about its application. Some people complain that even mandatory review does not ensure fairness, while others charge that there is too much concern for fairness -- resulting in lengthy appeals.

And, if the experience elsewhere is any indication, the next execution by cyanide gas will prove so gruesome to the public that the event will spark immediate calls for reform.

"There's been a pretty consistent pattern," says attorney H. Mark Stichel. "A state will do [an execution by gas], people will be offended, and then the state will switch over to lethal injection. It happened in California in 1992 and in Arizona in 1993. Maryland is the only state left that requires execution by lethal gas."

Mr. Stichel represents convicted murderer Donald Thomas, who is seeking to have his death sentence overturned on the grounds that execution by gas is cruel and unusual punishment.

According to witness accounts and some medical testimony, lethal gas is the slowest and most painful method of execution currently in use -- too cruel to be used as euthanasia for animals.

Lipscomb's death took about two minutes after the gas was administered.

"People think it is like dying of carbon monoxide poisoning, where you just sort of drift off," says Mr. Stichel. "It isn't like that at all. It is more like being strangled to death."

Last month, at a hearing for Thomas in Baltimore County Circuit Court, Dr. Shane gave a graphic account of Lipscomb's death.

"Nathaniel Lipscomb took a breath and he struggled in the chair and it seemed as if he was going to break right through the straps," recalled Dr. Shane.

"And the saliva began to drip from his mouth, from his nose, and then he went into -- it seemed like an epileptic fit.

"In 1948 I visited Auschwitz and I saw the gas chambers and this is the same gas. When I saw [Lipscomb's execution] I thought back to what I saw at Auschwitz and I thought that [his death] was probably the most inhumane thing I had ever seen."

Says Mr. Stichel: "Bottom line is, taking someone's life is not a pleasant process [for society], and I doubt if there's anything we can do to make it pleasant."

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