Md. legislature approves lethal injection execution

March 19, 1994|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,Sun Staff Writer Sun staff writer Glenn Small contributed to this article.

John Frederick Thanos, who could be executed as early as next month, is almost certain to have a choice as to how he will die.

The Maryland Senate gave final legislative approval yesterday to a bill switching the state's method of execution from the gas chamber to lethal injection. The governor, who sponsored the measure, is expected to sign it into law as soon as next week.

Under the bill, Thanos and the other dozen or so inmates on Maryland's death row could choose between the two methods. All others sentenced to death after the law goes into effect could only be killed through lethal injection.

"It is a less dramatic, quicker method of execution," said Page W. Boinest, the governor's press secretary. "If it's possible, this is a more humane way."

The governor pushed the bill through the General Assembly quickly this year so it could be applied to Thanos, who confessed to murdering three teen-agers in a week of crime in 1990 and would be the first person executed in Maryland since 1961.

Gary E. Bair, the assistant state attorney general who heads the criminal appeals division, said Thanos would be executed by lethal injection unless he writes the corrections commissioner to request death by gas.

It was not clear yesterday which method Thanos might prefer. Ms. Boinest said that she did not recall him ever stating a preference, only that he wants to die.

The switch to lethal injection is designed, in part, to stave off a federal lawsuit in which a death row inmate has argued that execution by gas is cruel and unusual punishment. State Sen. Walter M. Baker said passage of the law would render the suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, moot.

Mr. Baker, a conservative Cecil County Democrat and strong death penalty proponent, also said the switch made economic sense. It is much less expensive to inject someone with poison than to maintain a gas chamber, he said.

"It would save many, many thousands of dollars a year," Mr. Baker said.

Ms. Boinest said that gas is an outmoded method of execution that takes 15 to 20 minutes. Under lethal injection, the person is put to sleep first, then injected with poison. Maryland is the only state that still uses the gas chamber as its single means of execution.

Despite these arguments, most opponents of the death penalty contend the change to lethal injection is just an effort to make capital punishment more palatable to the public.

The bill, which was approved last week by the House of Delegates, passed the Senate yesterday by a vote of 37-9.

Of the senators who voted against the measure, four are black, urban legislators. Most members of the Legislative Black Caucus have historically opposed the death penalty in principle, said Larry Young, a Democratic senator from Baltimore.

"I just can't see myself ever voting for a death penalty bill as long as African-Americans are disproportionately represented on death row," said Mr. Young, who voted against the bill yesterday.

Thanos, who is 44, is to be executed 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.

Thanos has become a well-recognized figure to many Marylanders through news accounts of his courtroom demeanor. Appearing remorseless and arrogant, he has astonished judges, jurors and onlookers with curses, threats and sick humor. Given a chance to plead for his life as he was being sentenced for killing two of the teen-agers, he responded with a torrent of venom.

"If I could bring those brats back right now from their graves, I would do it so that I could murder them again before their eyes, as they cringe in fear and horror, reliving this eternal nightmare," Thanos said.

The last execution in Maryland was June 9, 1961, when Nathaniel Lipscomb, a 32-year-old laborer, was put to death for raping and strangling three Baltimore women.

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