Why Execute One Murderer?

PETER A. JAY

October 24, 1993|By PETER A. JAY

Havre de Grace -- To a committed opponent of capital punishment, John Thanos is the ultimate nightmare.

He is a remorseless murderer with no redeeming characteristics. As a middle-aged white man, he belongs to none of the accredited victim groups. And to top it off, he won't fight to avoid his scheduled execution. If he can't be out killing other people, he said with macabre candor, he'd just as soon die himself.

He may get his wish the week of November 1, unless the Maryland Court of Appeals comes down with a case of the willies after it hears arguments on Wednesday concerning his sentencing. The state's gas chamber has been tidied up in readiness for the first execution in 32 years. If it isn't used now, it probably won't be for a long time.

Because Thanos comes about as close to absolute evil as we're likely ever to see, his case brings the debate over Maryland's death penalty into acutely sharp focus. The debate is important and the stakes are high, for there are others on death row, and the execution of Thanos would demonstrate that the laws under which they were sentenced are not, after all, without meaning.

In a sense, this particular defendant is like the blob of grease clogging a backed-up sewer. Move him along, and it will open the drain. This is a prospect Marylanders generally regard as either encouraging or appalling.

There is something both bizarre and appropriate about the fact that at this stage in the Thanos legal proceedings, the state is arguing not with the defendant but with itself. Thanos refused to appeal, and rejected representation by the Maryland public defender. But the public defender appealed anyway, challenging the finding of Garrett County Circuit Judge Fred A. Thayer that Thanos is mentally competent.

Another challenge to the execution is going forward in federal court, and should the Maryland Court of Appeals uphold the Thanos sentence there could be a further appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. But there's no reason to think that those actions will save Thanos, or even buy him much more time.

Now that the drama is inching toward a conclusion, the usual battle lines have been drawn and, no doubt, the execution-eve posters already lettered. When the day of John Thanos' termination arrives, if it does, representatives of both camps will be found glaring at each other outside the penitentiary and giving sharp sound bites to the microphones.

For years, capital punishment in Maryland has been a volatile, visceral issue. I remember former Gov. Theodore McKeldin, perhaps 25 years ago, weeping at a legislative hearing over those he had allowed to be executed. But the debate is now even more highly charged because of the unchecked rise in violent crime.

In a generally peaceful and law-abiding society, as was Maryland in the days when those convicted of certain crimes were likely to be put to death, there is a workable consensus that some forms of conduct are absolutely unacceptable and must be dealt with harshly.

Sometimes this results in injustices, as when a defendant is executed only to have exonerating facts turn up afterward, or when the machinery of the state is used -- or is perceived to be used -- to punish those of certain races or religions more sternly than those of others. Examples of such injustices are the staples of most arguments against capital punishment.

No miscarriage of justice can be lightly dismissed. But serious crimes are all miscarriages of justice too, for they deprive their victims of their property, their peace of mind, or even their lives. This is a guiding principle of law-abiding societies.

By contrast, in a society in which for most practical purposes there are no rules and crime is epidemic, there is greater resistance to the state's exercise of its authority. Why execute one murderer when murderers by the score roam the streets? That would be discriminatory, and discrimination, it is commonly argued, is too big a price to pay for increased public safety. Faced with such arguments on capital punishment, governments have recently tended to throw in the towel.

If John Thanos dies in the Maryland gas chamber, there will be cheers -- but it shouldn't yet be a cause for rejoicing. It may not mean much at all. It certainly won't bring back to life Billy Winebrenner and Melody Pistorio, the two teen-agers he shot to death in Middle River three years ago, or Gregory Taylor, the teen-ager he shot to death on the Eastern Shore. It won't, by itself, deter future killers or bring about safer streets.

But its symbolic significance could be considerable, over time. In the future it may be seen as the moment that the government of Maryland, prodded by an aroused citizenry, looked at the chaos around it and decided to draw a line in the sand.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer. His column appears Sundays and Thursdays.

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