Senate OKs execution by injection

February 16, 1994|By Robert Timberg | Robert Timberg,Sun Staff Writer

Against small but spirited opposition from death penalty foes, the Maryland Senate overwhelmingly agreed yesterday to switch the state's method of execution from the gas chamber to lethal injection.

The bill passed 38 to 7, with two abstentions, despite a vigorous rear guard action by a handful of senators opposed to capital punishment in any form.

The measure, part of Gov. William Donald Schaefer's legislative package, now goes to the House of Delegates, where passage is less certain. The Senate approved a similar bill last year, but it failed in the House Judiciary Committee.

Maryland is the only state that still uses the gas chamber as its only means of execution. If the bill becomes law, anyone sentenced to death before its enactment would be given a choice of lethal gas or lethal injection.

John Frederick Thanos, who confessed to murdering three teen-agers in a weeklong 1990 crime spree, stands to be the first person executed in Maryland since 1961. He is waiting out an automatic 240-day stay provided by state law. Thanos tried to waive the stay, but the Court of Appeals ruled in November that he could not.

Last month, Judge Marvin S. Kaminetz said he would not sign an execution warrant until the stay expires, which means the earliest Thanos could be executed is the first week in April, said Gary E. Bair, the assistant state attorney general who heads the criminal appeals division.

Sen. Walter M. Baker, chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, said the lethal injection legislation is needed because another Maryland inmate has challenged use of the gas chamber as cruel and unusual punishment. That case is being heard in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.

The debate in the Senate yesterday was not for the squeamish as Mr. Baker, a conservative Cecil County Democrat, beat back efforts by several senators to delay the vote.

Mr. Baker, pressed to detail expenses associated with execution by injection, said it would cost less than $10 for "the juice they squirt in there." Asked to identify by name the chemicals to be used, Mr. Baker replied, "I don't think there will be a problem, because a poison is a poison is a poison."

Questioned by Sen. Gerald W. Winegrad, D-Anne Arundel, Mr. Baker said the person performing the injection would not need to have any medical expertise beyond training by the state in how to do the job. "I'm a diabetic, and I inject myself three times a day," Mr. Baker said.

Mr. Winegrad responded by citing tales of criminals whose deaths were prolonged and agonizing because their executioners could not find a vein that could be used for the injection.

Sen. Idamae Garrott, D-Montgomery, said that during an illness of hers, a doctor tried for hours to find a usable vein and finally gave up. When she asked what would be done in such a case, Mr. Baker replied, "We'll cross that bridge when we come to it."

After the vote, Mr. Winegrad said, "All this is being driven by Thanos, because they're afraid the judge will rule that gassing is cruel and unusual punishment."

Another leader of the death penalty opponents, Sen. Decatur W. Trotter, D-Prince George's, called the spirited hourlong debate merely "a shot across the bow" to gain attention for a different bill.

That measure, sponsored by Mr. Trotter and Mr. Winegrad, would prohibit capital punishment in cases in which there was statistical evidence that race was a basis for the sentence.

The legislation is needed, the sponsors said in a written statement, "because there is a statistical correlation between the race of a defendant or a defendant's victim and the frequency with which the death penalty is sought by prosecutors and/or imposed by juries."

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