Prissy secrecy attends Thanos death sentence

May 12, 1994|By WILEY A. HALL

Barring executive clemency or judicial intervention, Maryland is scheduled to hold its first execution since 1961 next week. Convicted murderer John Thanos, 44, will be put to death, under conditions that amount to secrecy, in a Spartan chamber on the second floor of the Maryland Penitentiary. He is expected to die by lethal injection.

State officials have planned a fastidious ceremony with an almost prissy regard for the delicate sensibilities of the public -- perhaps reflecting our ambivalence to the death penalty itself. For instance, the public will not be told of the execution until after the fact. Details, such as who will conduct the execution and how it will be done, are kept secret. We do not even know the names of the people who will serve as witnesses.

All of which raises the question: If we find this so distasteful, why do we even bother?

Maryland has been trying without success for over a century to find an antiseptic means to execute its criminals -- one that is humane and fair and in good taste. Lethal injection, adopted just a few months ago by the state legislature, is supposed to be a nicer way to die than the gas chamber. Physicians have compared the gas chamber to strangling a person by hand.

But yesterday, lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union argued in Baltimore Circuit Court that lethal injection is almost as barbaric.

"Contrary to the legislature's intent, there is a grave risk that lethal injection will result in prolonged mental and physical agony," argued ACLU attorneys in an affidavit filed with the court. "One reason is that lethal injection is a more complicated procedure and requires greater skill than methods it has replaced . . . Lethal injections are far more likely to be botched than any other method of execution."

The ACLU argues that the legislature adopted lethal injection as a means of execution without appropriate study. The court is being asked for an injunction halting Thanos' planned execution until a full hearing on the issue can be held.

I know that many people are impatient with such debate. Thanos is not a nice man. He has been convicted of three murders. He has shown no remorse. He says he is eager to die. I doubt that any of the 14 people on death row are nice.

But the death penalty is not about them, it is about us. They are killers. Do we want to be killers? Is it possible to kill someone in a nice way?

Personally, I am almost as offended by the way the procedures involved in lethal injection mimic medical techniques. (The American Medical Association has advised physicians that participation in executions by lethal injection may put them in conflict with their oath to use their skills only to heal.)

According to state officials, the condemned will be taken to a 20-by-20-foot room near the hospital room of the Maryland Penitentiary and strapped onto a surgical table that has been bolted to the floor. Members of what the state calls its "execution team" will strap the prisoner to the table and insert an intravenous needle into his forearm. The IV is connected by a rubber tube to a wall, behind which team members will retreat to flip the switch that will feed three drugs into the prisoner.

The first drug, state officials say, renders the prisoner unconscious. The second drug relaxes his muscles. The third drug stops electrical impulses, an action that effectively stops the heart. Witnesses are not allowed to see anything until members of the execution team are prepared to flip the switch.

"It is very simple and very quick," says Leonard A. Sipes, a corrections spokesman. "Two minutes is all it takes."

But other jurisdictions have found that the process is rarely so cut and dried. Earlier this week, for instance, Illinois initially botched the execution of mass murderer John Wayne Gacy, when the tube clogged. Officials contended that the problem did not cause Gacy undue suffering before the second attempt succeeded, though witnesses could not verify the claim. A few years ago, in Texas, the IV broke loose and sprayed blood and chemicals throughout the room. In Oklahoma, the condemned began moaning so loudly that witnesses reportedly were "very disturbed."

I ask again: Why in the world do we even bother?

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