State ready to give Thanos the lethal injection

May 06, 1994|By Glenn Small | Glenn Small,Sun Staff Writer

As the day of John F. Thanos' death draws nearer, Maryland corrections officials say they're ready to carry out Maryland's first execution in nearly 33 years -- and the state's first by lethal injection.

"The procedure is extremely simple," said corrections spokesman Leonard A. Sipes Jr. "If one can relate to a person getting an IV at the hospital, there's no difference."

While federal public defenders were set to challenge the legality of lethal execution in U.S. District Court today, corrections officials were preparing to give the media a glimpse of the new execution area -- basically a table with straps next to the old gas chamber in the hospital wing of the Maryland Penitentiary.

If last-minute appeals fail, Thanos will be brought to that room sometime during the week of May 16-- officials will not announce the exact time beforehand -- and strapped to the table, Mr. Sipes said.

At that point, between nine and 15 witnesses will be ushered into the room to watch Thanos die.

Thanos, 44, the confessed killer of three teen-agers, was sentenced to die in the gas chamber for the robbery and murder of Gregory Taylor, 18, a welder from Hebron on Maryland's Eastern Shore. But in March the General Assembly passed emergency legislation that switched the state's primary method of execution to lethal injection -- generally viewed as more humane and less open to constitutional challenge.

Thanos had an opportunity to choose the gas chamber but did not do so.

Frank Mazzone, 61, the former assistant commissioner of Maryland's prisons, will direct an "execution team" of five correctional officers, all of whom have received training on how to administer an intravenous needle, Mr. Sipes said.

The executioners, whose identities will not be revealed, will first administer the IV, then use it to inject three drugs.

The first is sodium Pentothal, a barbiturate that will render Thanos unconscious.

"Its basic use is to put someone asleep for surgery, as an anesthetic agent," said Dr. Raymond C. Love, vice chairman of the Department of Pharmacy Practice and Science at the University of Maryland at Baltimore.

Next, a muscle-relaxing drug called Pavulon will be injected, said Mr. Sipes, to keep the major muscles of the body from contracting during the execution.

Other states that have performed executions by lethal injection have reported that inmates have flinched or coughed during the procedure. The muscle-relaxing drug is aimed at minimizing muscle contractions.

Depending on the dosage, Dr. Love said, Pavulon itself can cause the muscles of the diaphragm to stop moving and the lungs to cease functioning. Finally, Mr. Sipes said, potassium chloride is injected. That drug interrupts electrical impulses in the body, and would cause the heart to stop, said Dr. Love.

Death would come "within minutes," according to Mr. Sipes.

Details of the execution are being disclosed as federal public defenders attempt to stop it by arguing, among other things, that corrections officials have not come up with proper procedures. In a petition filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, those lawyers argue that the General Assembly acted too hastily in passing the lethal injection law, and that the execution could be botched, subjecting Thanos to physical and psychological pain.

In an affidavit filed with the appeal, Dr. M. Jane Matjasko, chairwoman of the Department of Anesthesiology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, wrote that the risk of an unnecessarily painful execution is "greatly enhanced by the failure of the lethal injection law to set forth minimal training standards for those persons performing lethal injections."

The danger, according to the appeal, is that if the executioners don't have proper training, they could have difficulty finding a vein and could cause pain by repeatedly jabbing Thanos with the needle.

The appeal cites lethal injection executions in other states over VTC the past 10 years in which corrections officials spent as much as an hour poking condemned prisoners, attempting to insert the IV needle.

But Mr. Sipes said Maryland's execution team has been fully trained by paramedics.

The federal appeal also argues that Maryland's lethal injection law is unconstitutional because it allows pharmacists to issue the drugs without a prescription from a doctor.

However, Richard Rosenblatt, an assistant attorney general who works for the department of corrections, said, "We can't get a prescription, because a doctor can only write a prescription for legitimate medical needs."

Thanos faces two additional death sentences for the murders of Billy Winebrenner, 16, and Melody Pistorio, 14, during the Labor Day holdup of a Middle River gasoline station where young Winebrenner worked. A Garrett County judge is considering whether to issue new death warrants in those slayings.

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