Thanos may die, but will that change anything?


John Thanos' letters from prison show a man hungry for death, though the details of his dying terrify him. He's exhausted by the long legal overture to the last act of his life. He wants out, whatever the cost. Now the state of Maryland prepares to oblige him.

Thanos in his isolation imagines a hideous expiration. The state says otherwise. Thanos in his letters talks of "the relentless fury" of his body "screaming, jerking and thrashing in agony for what seems like forever." The state now says it will be gentler.

His death is tentatively set for next week, not in the gas chamber he's long anticipated but by lethal injection. The state considers this most humane. Thanos in his final hours merely says thank you to the judge who gave the go-ahead to his execution, whatever its method, and waits for all appeals to run their course.

Thus we remember the names of some formerly departed: Nathaniel Lipscomb, the last man to die at the state's hand, and Joseph Howard, the retired judge who dug into the past and gave us the cynical arithmetic of sentencing procedures.

Lipscomb, a dish washer in a Gay Street restaurant, was convicted of raping and murdering three East Baltimore women. A state psychiatrist called him mentally defective. There was evidence of organic brain damage.

Lipscomb sat in his penitentiary cell and wept that he hadn't meant to kill the women. He pleaded insanity and got nowhere. He was put to death on June 9, 1961, in the gas chamber, in an act no one realized would be the last execution here for more than three decades.

Several years after Lipscomb, Judge Joseph Howard put together a 32-page report that shed light on Maryland capital punishment procedures. He charged courts throughout the state with racial bias. He dealt specifically with rape cases, but it takes no great imagination to extend the thinking to murder. Among his findings:

* Blacks convicted of rape against whites were disproportionately sentenced to death, life imprisonment, and extended prison terms.

* Over a 40-year period, in all 30 cases where offenders were executed for rape, the victim was white.

* No man, black or white, was ever executed for the rape of a black woman.

The Howard study, though limited to rape, seemed to speak volumes about the courts' general instincts. Thus, much talk of death penalties came weighted by implicit concern about racism. The courts wouldn't be fair, many said. They would rush to execute blacks and cut deals for whites.

In such an atmosphere, John Thanos becomes the perfect poster boy for advocates of the death penalty. All those who knew about Judge Howard's study, or who merely presumed racial bias in sentencing procedures, now can be told: You see this man Thanos? White skin! Thus, the state of Maryland enters the death business and simultaneously shows everyone it's an equal opportunity executioner.

For decades, the nation has tortured itself over the death penalty. Let's not reduce ourselves to the level of the criminals, we said. Let's not imagine execution will cut crime, we said. Let's remember racial bias, we said, citing not only the questions about the black man Nathaniel Lipscomb's sanity but a whole history hinted at by Judge Howard.

John Thanos is our signal that the philosophical agonizing is ending. Now we express merely our revulsion, our revenge on first one and then another and another for all the thousands of faceless criminals who make us cringe. Thanos killed, and then killed again, and then told us he'd kill again if given a chance.

His letters from prison show brains and insight. He's a man who's looking in the mirror, measuring his performance, as he makes each move in court and in private. His history shows a man with a brutal, tortured past who finally let his twisted instincts get the best of his intelligence.

Three people, all teen-agers, paid with their lives because of Thanos. Is such a body count not sufficient cause for his own death? In raw numbers, of course. But let's not delude ourselves. Let's not think that criminals will now take a lesson and change their ways. Let's not imagine Thanos could have stopped himself if he'd known we'd get serious about the death penalty.

Let's not imagine, beyond one demented man's death, and the belated revenge for his victims, that anything else changes.

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