Inmate asks videotape of Thanos execution

December 01, 1993|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,Staff Writer

A death row inmate who is second in line for execution after John Thanos is asking a federal court for the right to videotape Thanos' execution and to have Thanos undergo a medical test as he dies in Maryland's gas chamber.

Thanos has agreed to both requests, which are part of inmate Donald Thomas' effort to prove that the gas chamber constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. Thomas took his case to federal court after a Baltimore County judge dismissed in October his challenge to the constitutionality of the gas chamber.

U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis has scheduled a hearing for Friday.

Thomas argues that an electroencephalograph (EEG) test, which monitors brain activity, could help show how long a person remains conscious once exposed to cyanide in the gas chamber.

He also has asked that Richard J. Traystman, a professor of anesthesiology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, be allowed to witness the execution.

Dr. Traystman, who has studied records of more than 100 gas chamber executions but has never witnessed one, said that with the EEG, the Thanos execution could prove valuable in determining when a prisoner loses consciousness and whether he experiences pain.

"We do not have any clear information about that at the present time," Dr. Traystman said.

The Thanos execution probably would be the only opportunity to obtain the EEG test for his client's case, said Mark Stichel, Thomas' lawyer.

In the past 15 months, Arizona and California have given inmates the alternative of execution by lethal injection, making Maryland the only state where lethal gas is the sole method of execution.

The only known videotape of a gas chamber execution is that of Robert Alton Harris, who died in California in April 1992. Thomas has requested the tape of that execution, which is under court seal, but a federal judge in California is awaiting court action in Maryland before deciding whether to release it.

Maryland officials object to Thomas' requests on various grounds. They say the information he seeks is beyond what he is entitled to and argue that executions are "semiprivate," privileged events.

The officials also say that a bill allowing execution by lethal injection in Maryland is expected to pass in the next General Assembly session, which would would make Thomas' case moot.

The state also contends that the only available spot for a video camera would give it nothing more than a view of the prisoner's back and would be useless.

"The expression on John Thanos's face as he is put to death and the duration and extent of his brain activity is irrelevant" to the issue, Assistant Attorney General Richard B. Rosenblatt argued, according to court papers.

Mr. Rosenblatt also suggested that the delay required to connect EEG equipment to Thanos before the execution would be cruel.

Thanos, who is not appealing his death sentence, faces execution for the murders of Billy Winebrenner, 16, and Melody Pistorio, 14, during a 1990 service station holdup in Middle River and for the death of another teen-ager, Gregory Taylor, during a car theft.

His execution date for the Middle River murders, set for early November, was delayed until at least March 3 after the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled he could not waive an automatic 240-day stay of execution.

Thomas was sentenced to death for the 1981 murders of Donald Spurling, a former state police officer, and his wife, Sarah, who were stabbed repeatedly in an armed robbery at their home in Arbutus.

Thomas also received a sentence of life in prison plus 20 years on several other charges, including the rape of a 25-year-old student who was boarding with the couple.

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