Court Battle over Thanos execution begins Legal challenge is centering on killer's competence JOHN THANOS--THE STRUGGLE OVER THE DEATH PENALTY

October 27, 1993|By Glenn Small | Glenn Small,Staff Writer

A last-ditch legal effort to save John Frederick Thanos from death in the gas chamber gets under way today before Maryland's highest court, although the convicted killer of two Baltimore County teen-agers wants no part of it.

Thanos' guilt in the 1990 shooting deaths of Billy Winebrenner, 16, and Melody Pistorio 14, during a gasoline station holdup was established long ago. The Court of Appeals last summer ruled that the death sentence was proper.

What's left to decide is whether the 44-year-old killer was mentally competent last month when he told a Garrett County judge that he was tired of the judicial system, fired his public defenders and waived any further appeals.

The execution, scheduled for the first week in November, has been temporarily stayed pending today's appeal. If that appeal fails and the execution is carried out, Thanos will be the first prisoner to die in the Maryland gas chamber in 32 years.

There will be other objections raised at today's hearing, including a challenge to the constitutionality of Maryland's death penalty. The American Civil Liberties Union will weigh in with an argument that Thanos cannot waive an automatic, 240-day stay of execution provided by Maryland law. But lawyers involved in the case say the main issue will be Thanos' competency.

Attorneys from the Office of the Public Defender, whom Thanos fired, appealed without his permission, arguing that he was legally incompetent to dismiss them. They point to Thanos' long history of suicide attempts and say that mental illness renders him incapable of making a rational choice.

Lawyers from the attorney general's office counter that Thanos has never been found incompetent in 30 years of trials and hearings in Maryland, and that he was competent last month when he dropped his appeals and fired his lawyers.

Competency is a basic legal issue decided routinely in thousands of criminal cases every year. Lawyers say it's normally determined by asking two simple questions: Does a defendant appreciate or understand the nature of the charges against him, and can he assist in his own defense? A "No" to either one means that the defendant is incompetent to stand trial.

But today the issue is slightly different. Thanos has already been found competent to face trial, both in the Baltimore County murder case and another murder trial in St. Mary's County, where he was found guilty of killing an 18-year-old Hebron welder, Gregory Taylor.

Both sides agree that Thanos understands his case and knows that dropping his appeals puts him in danger of execution. But they disagree over why he made that decision.

Public defenders argue that Thanos' decision to drop his appeals by itself shows incompetence. They point to a long history of suicide attempts, brought on by a borderline personality disorder manifested in antisocial behavior.

Thanos, they say, has taken drug overdoses, once slashed his throat, and even tried to strangle himself with his own hair.

Another symptom of the mental illness is that Thanos reacts badly to stress, public defenders say. This is why he so frequently disrupts courtroom proceedings, making provocative comments and even cursing his own attorneys. What is more stressful, they argue, then the prospect of being killed?

Public defenders also argue that the Garrett County judge who last month found Thanos competent made a flawed decision, because even the judge admitted that Thanos' decision "may be the product of his mental disorder."

While acknowledging that Thanos suffers from a borderline personality disorder, prosecutors say the illness does not make him incompetent.

They point to a psychiatric evaluation conducted for the prosecution by Dr. Annette Hanson. She interviewed Thanos for two hours on Aug. 19, reviewed transcripts of his case, and looked over volumes of medical records. She concluded that he was not suffering from a major mental disorder that would "substantially impair his decision-making capacity."

"From Mr. Thanos' viewpoint, he sees his legal condition as terminal," Dr. Hanson testified at the Sept. 27 competency hearing. "He sees very little benefit, and very much discomfort, with continuing the legal process, and so he's making, in his view, a rational decision to terminate legal representation."

Meanwhile, the ACLU, intervening as a friend of the court, is expected to argue that Thanos cannot waive an automatic 240-day stay of execution provided under Maryland law. Prosecutors call the automatic stay a procedural right, such as a right to a bail review hearing or a trial by jury, that defendants can waive and that third parties such as the ACLU cannot reassert.

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