State lawyer's job is to press for the execution Bair tells why killer should die JOHN THANOS--THE STRUGGLE OVER THE DEATH PENALTY

October 27, 1993|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,Staff Writer

Gary E. Bair says he's not driven by a thirst for blood as he argues in appeal after appeal for John Frederick Thanos' execution. Nor is he motivated by Thanos' seeming arrogance toward the criminal justice system and his victims.

He's just a state lawyer doing his job, putting aside his personal feelings about Thanos and capital punishment.

"I don't think they're really relevant," said Mr. Bair, 42, who today will ask the Maryland Court of Appeals to clear another obstacle in Thanos' path to the gas chamber.

As head of the criminal appeals division of the Maryland attorney general's office, Mr. Bair oversees 16 lawyers who review all criminal cases taken to the state's appellate courts.

He also has been on the other side of the criminal justice aisle, teaching criminal defense law at the American University law school's criminal justice clinic and working as an assistant public defender in Prince George's County.

Now he is the point man on a three-member team fighting for Thanos' execution. Mary Ellen Barbera, deputy chief of criminal appeals, and Gwynn X. Kinsey Jr., senior counsel in the capital litigation division, are the team's other members.

Together, they are preparing for every legal scenario that could delay -- or prevent -- the execution, writing briefs that may never be filed in court.

Mr. Bair's boss, Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., vehemently opposes the death penalty. He says it has not proven to be a deterrent and notes that Maryland will be "taking a life" by carrying out an execution. But, like his assistant, he is duty-bound to uphold the law.

"I'm going to do it. I disagree with the policy, but it's legal," Mr. Curran said.

Thanos, sentenced to die next week for killing Middle River teen-agers Billy Winebrenner and Melody Pistorio during a 1990 crime spree, has sought to bypass the years-long appeals that could prevent his execution.

Mr. Bair argues that Thanos should be executed for the murders because the public is watching the case closely to see how the criminal justice system works -- or doesn't work -- in Maryland.

He said he is concerned that Maryland has not executed any of the approximately 30 people sentenced to die since the current death-penalty statute took effect in 1978. This "serves to undermine the public's confidence in the criminal justice system," Mr. Bair said.

Thanos' execution, which would be Maryland's first in 32 years, could open the door for more executions by breaking the "psychological barrier" that has persisted for three decades, he said. Before that happens, Mr. Bair expects death-penalty opponents to step up their campaign, even though Thanos is not a sympathetic figure.

Mr. Bair joined the attorney general's office in 1982, and he has headed the criminal appeals division since 1987.

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