Thanos barred from waiving 240-day stay Execution delayed at least until March for teen-agers' killer

November 11, 1993|By Glenn Small | Glenn Small,Staff Writer

Maryland's highest court said in a 4-3 ruling yesterday that John Frederick Thanos cannot waive an automatic, 240-day stay of his execution, thereby delaying his death in the gas chamber until at least March 3.

The Court of Appeals agreed with arguments by the American Civil Liberties Union that the state's automatic stay is mandatory and not a right a prisoner can waive.

However, by a similar margin, the judges ruled that Thanos, 44, the confessed killer of three teen-agers during a weeklong 1990 crime spree, was competent to fire his public defenders and waive future appeals.

The ruling prompted Walter M. Baker Jr., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, to declare that an unwaivable stay of execution was not the General Assembly's intention. He said legislators would rewrite the law to make it clear that it was designed to speed up death penalty cases, not delay them.

Writing for the court's majority, Judge John F. McAuliffe focused on the problems that would be raised if, as prosecutors argued, Thanos could waive the 240-day stay and then changed his mind if he had second thoughts at a later date -- even as he was being brought to the gas chamber.

"The entire process becomes tentative, uncertain, and until the last moment subject to the control of the defendant," wrote Judge McAuliffe, who was joined by Robert M. Bell, Howard S. Chasanow and John C. Eldridge. The judges said that the prosecution's position would, in effect, give Thanos "the keys to the gas chamber."

On the other side, Chief Judge Robert C. Murphy and Judges Robert L. Karwacki and Lawrence F. Rodowsky said that the 240-day stay is a statute-given right that can be waived like many other rights.

"If a person under sentence of death has determined not to seek post-conviction review and has waived the benefit of the 240 day stay, the purpose of the automatic stay has been satisfied," wrote Judge Rodowsky.

"I believe that the members of the General Assembly who voted so overwhelmingly to eliminate unnecessary delay in capital cases will be shocked" by the majority's interpretation, Judge Rodowsky wrote.

Senator Baker, the Democrat from Cecil County who sponsored the legislation in 1991, agreed.

"All they had to do was look who the sponsor of the bill was to know what it was for," said Mr. Baker, a longtime proponent of speeding up death penalty appeals.

Thanos originally faced execution last week for the murders of Billy Winebrenner, 16, and Melody Pistorio, 14, during a 1990 holdup of a Middle River gasoline station.

The case was tried in Garrett County, where a judge issued the death warrant that expired Sunday while the high court considered the appeal filed by public defenders and the ACLU without Thanos' consent.

Thanos, who calmly confessed to killing the teen-agers as well as an 18-year-old welder from Hebron in an unrelated attack, set the stage for Maryland's first execution in 32 years by insisting on firing his attorneys and declining further appeals.

Relatives of Thanos' victims were upset with the ruling.

"I think on the 239th day, someone is going to file another appeal," commented Ed Pistorio, Melody's father. "I think it's going to drag on and on, at taxpayer's expense."

Although Gov. William Donald Schaefer has expressed misgivings about the death penalty and said he will sponsor legislation to change Maryland's method of execution to lethal -- injection, he also expressed unhappiness with the ruling.

"I'm personally disappointed," said Mr. Schaefer. "And the reason I say this [is] because Thanos was a vicious killer. He is an exceptionally bad man. He's killed and he doesn't have any regret. . . . A person like that I have no feeling for at all."

Because of yesterday's ruling, the state must wait until the 240 days elapse before it can execute Thanos. For the murders of Billy Winebrenner and Melody Pistorio, that clock runs out on May 5.

But Thanos also faces death for the murder of Gregory Taylor, whom Thanos killed while stealing the young man's car. Thanos was sentenced in St. Mary's County Circuit Court in that case before he was sentenced in the Middle River killings. The 240-day stay on the St. Mary's case runs out March 2.

Gary Bair, an assistant attorney general, said that the St. Mary's judge could sign a death warrant in January or February, setting the execution for the week that begins when the stay runs out.

B. Randall Coates, the Worcester County state's attorney who prosecuted Thanos for the Taylor murder, said he will go before St. Mary's County Judge Marvin S. Kaminetz in January to ask for a death warrant.

Mr. Coates said he expects more challenges to Thanos' competence.

Yesterday's ruling eliminates the public defender's standing to represent Thanos -- at least in the Middle River killings. Michael Braudes, an assistant public defender, said that his office has not decided whether it can still represent Thanos in the St. Mary's County case.

Even if Judge Kaminetz signs a death warrant to take effect immediately after the 240-day stay elapses, lawyers on both sides expect a federal public defender to file a petition for habeas corpus in U.S. District Court.

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