Gas chamber 'ready' for Thanos execution But prison officials say little else

October 24, 1993|By Glenn Small | Glenn Small,Staff Writer

Maryland prison officials allowed reporters and photographers to have a look yesterday at the gas chamber at the Maryland Penitentiary, but refused to say much about the impending execution of John F. Thanos.

"Right now, it's considered ready to go," Leonard A. Sipes Jr., a prison spokesman, said of the six-sided steel chamber on the second floor of the prison hospital.

Although Mr. Sipes said the 37-year-old gas chamber has been tested and works properly, he declined to describe how it actually was tested. Likewise, he said he was not allowed to discuss in detail how the Thanos execution would be carried out "for security reasons."

He would not specify what possible security problems he was referring to, nor would he say how Maryland's execution procedures have been changed, if at all.

Prison officials have been studying vintage 1950s execution procedures since Sept. 27, the day Garrett County Circuit Judge Frederick A. Thayer signed a death warrant for Thanos, after the convicted killer fired his attorneys and waived his rights to future appeals.

The 44-year-old Thanos, who killed three teen-agers during a weeklong crime spree in 1990, said he wants no more appeals, although he doesn't want to die.

He said last month he would rather kill again, but is tired of the judicial system.

Appeal to be heard

Judge Thayer directed Warden Sewall Smith to execute Thanos during the first week of November. That order is stayed, however, until the outcome of an appeal before Maryland's highest court, scheduled to be heard Wednesday. Thanos' fired attorneys are asking the Court of Appeals to declare Thanos incompetent to waive future appeals.

Until yesterday, prison officials would say nothing about the impending execution, except that they were studying how they might update the old execution regulations, written by Vernon L. Pepersack, the warden in 1956 when Maryland switched to lethal gas as the means for executions.

About all Mr. Sipes would say yesterday is that at some point Thanos will be moved to death row -- a group of five cells next to the gas chamber -- and that the lethal gas will be produced by mixing cyanide pellets with sulfuric acid.

He would not be more specific, saying his superiors had told him not to discuss the death procedure in detail. When asked if the regulations were substantially changed from the last execution in 1961, Mr. Sipes said they were not.

Warden kept scrapbook

The purchase and installation of the gas chamber is well-documented, as are reports of how it was used between 1957 and 1961. Mr. Pepersack kept a thick scrapbook, which details how executions were carried out.

Standing about 9 feet tall, and about 6 1/2 feet in circumference, the gas chamber has six sides -- five windows and one door. It is built into the witness room wall, so that three windows face the witnesses. The condemned prisoner enters the gas chamber through a steel door in another room.

Inside the chamber itself is a single steel chair that faces the door, pointed away from the witness room. Under the steel-mesh chair is a vat into which sulfuric acid is poured, just before the prisoner is strapped in.

Once the prisoner's arms and legs are strapped to the chair, the execution team places cyanide pellets into a container suspended above the sulfuric acid. A heart monitor is also hooked up to the prisoner.

The heavy steel door is shut and sealed. At a signal from the warden, the cyanide pellets are mechanically dropped into the acid, producing clouds of pale, white gas some witnesses have compared to cigarette smoke.

After the prisoner is dead, a neutralizing agent is pumped through the chamber to clear it of cyanide gas, and to make it safe for prison guards to re-enter.

No executions since 1961

Maryland has executed some 80 prisoners since 1923, but none since 1961, when Nathaniel Lipscomb was executed for the rape and murder of three Baltimore women. Lipscomb was the fourth person to die in Maryland's gas chamber.

Before that, condemned prisoners were executed by hanging in a death chamber at the Maryland Penitentiary. They would be strapped to a chair, a noose would be placed around their neck and both prisoner and chair would go through a trap door.

Maryland is the last state to require executions by lethal gas and not to offer at least the option of lethal injection instead. Hanging was abandoned by the General Assembly in 1955 and the gas chamber was installed in 1956 at a cost of roughly $25,000.

According to records kept by Mr. Pepersack, the four gas chamber executions he oversaw were at 10 p.m. on Thursday of the execution week.

No announcement

Should appeals on behalf of Thanos fail, and the execution goes forward, prison officials insist they will not announce ahead of time exactly when the execution will be. A 70-year-old state law forbids the warden from making such an announcement.

There will be up to 12 witnesses, who have not been picked yet. Mr. Sipes said those witnesses, including a few reporters, would be asked not to reveal the date and time of the execution in advance.

Parents of Thanos' murder victims have asked to be witnesses, but Mr. Sipes said officials have not decided whether to honor those requests.

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