A U.S. District Court judge yesterday refused to stay the execution of convicted killer John Frederick Thanos, and family members later announced that they will abandon attempts to save his life through appeals that Thanos himself opposes.
The action means that next week, Thanos is likely to become the first Maryland prisoner to be executed in 33 years, and the state's first by lethal injection.
Yesterday, Judge Benson E. Legg threw out a "next friends" appeal filed on Thanos' behalf by his mother, Pattie Matney, and his sister, Diane Genco, who had argued that Thanos was not mentally competent.
"They continue to believe that Mr. Thanos is not competent to make the decision not to challenge his death sentence," Larry A. Nathans, chief assistant federal public defender, said at a news conference after the hearing.
"But they have decided not to appeal further because they believe all available appeals would probably not succeed, and because they hope to make peace with Mr. Thanos before his execution."
Thanos is to be executed next week for the August 1990 robbery and murder of Gregory A. Taylor Jr., 18, a welder from Hebron on the Eastern Shore.
He has steadfastly refused to appeal, fired his state public defenders, and opposed attempts by his family and federal public defenders to stay his execution.
Thanos also faces a death sentence for the Labor Day 1990 murders of Baltimore County teen-agers Billy Winebrenner, 16, and Melody Pistorio, 14, during a gasoline station holdup in Middle River.
The decision by federal public defenders to drop further appeals at the family's behest came late yesterday afternoon and surprised prosecutors, who thought the case would be appealed to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, and, eventually, the U.S. Supreme Court.
"It certainly makes it ever more likely that there will be an execution next week," said Gary E. Bair, an assistant attorney general who argued against the federal appeal.
One potential roadblock is a civil suit filed yesterday afternoon in Baltimore City Circuit Court by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU,) which is asking for an injunction to stop the execution.
The ACLU, filing suit on behalf of 10 taxpayers, alleged that the General Assembly acted too hastily in approving lethal injection as the state's primary means of execution during its 1994 session, which ended in April. It argued that the lethal injection law violates federal drug laws by allowing corrections officials staff to get the lethal drugs used in the execution without a prescription.
And, unless those who carry out the execution have been properly trained, lethal injection can result in a "prolonged and painful death," the suit charges.
No hearing on the ACLU suit has yet been scheduled.
Mr. Bair said that, barring a successful suit by the ACLU, the last avenue open to stop the execution would be a challenge to Thanos' competency in Baltimore City Circuit Court under a law that forbids the state from executing incompetent inmates. Anyone may file such an appeal.
However, Mr. Bair said such an action, if filed, would have little likelihood of success, since whoever might file it would need to prove that Thanos is unaware that he is about to be executed.
"It's very clear that he understands that" he will be executed next week, said Mr. Bair.
Thanos has said for more than a year that he wants no appeals and knows that failing to appeal will result in his death.
In fact, Thanos said "Thank you" yesterday after Judge Legg threw out his family's appeal.
Judge Legg ruled that a state court was correct in finding Thanos mentally competent. The judge also said that Thanos' mother and sister had failed to provide new evidence to the contrary. "Having made those findings, it would be reversible error for me to stay the execution in order to hold my own competency hearing," Judge Legg concluded.
Federal public defenders and a Washington law firm who filed the latest appeal had argued that Garrett County Judge Fred A. Thayer's competency hearing was flawed because it lasted only one day and only two witnesses testified.
But Judge Legg yesterday called that view "inaccurate," saying Judge Thayer had heard a wealth of psychological and background testimony during two sentencing hearings for Thanos.
Despite the judge's ruling, the public defenders said they still believe Thanos to be incompetent.
"We do not believe that Mr. Thanos' competence has ever been fully reviewed or given a proper hearing," said Mr. Nathans.
"We believe the State of Maryland is about to execute a delusional man who has been trying to commit suicide for years and who is clearly incompetent to make the decision not to fight the execution."
Mr. Bair took exception to the Mr. Nathans' remarks, saying there have been at least 10 different competency determinations in the Thanos case.
Rep. Helen D. Bentley, who is seeking the Republican nomination for governor, showed up at yesterday's hearing and announced her opposition to appeals being filed without Thanos' permission. She said she would introduce legislation in Congress to make "next friends" appeals more difficult to file.
James K. Bredar, Maryland's federal public defender, later defended the actions by his office. "Our adversarial system of justice depends upon the willingness of public defenders to undertake unpopular causes," he declared.