Death penalty opponent is asked tough questions

May 15, 1994|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,Sun Staff Writer

"Why are you trying to save the lives of people who deserve to be executed?" is the question that Joseph F. Riener often hears.

Once, it was posed by the stepmother of teen-ager Melody Pistorio, who was killed by convicted murderer John Frederick Thanos. She left her query on his answering machine.

"She said, somewhat in anger, but plaintively, 'Why are you doing this? How can you try to save the life of a man who killed my daughter?' " Mr. Riener recalled Friday as he sought to explain his vigorous opposition to capital punishment.

"I wrote her a letter saying that in no way was my effort to save his life a disregard for her pain, her loss. I didn't want her to think my actions were to diminish the pain that she went through. But I wanted her to see that I didn't want us to become murderers by taking [Thanos'] life."

Mr. Riener, 46, a child of the anti-war movement, doesn't believe the government should take the life of another person, even one who commits a heinous crime. He is among the activists and lawyers who have been trying to save the life of Thanos, whose death sentence could be carried out as early as tomorrow.

As coordinator of Let Live, a Baltimore-based group with a

650-person mailing list, he has held demonstrations and participated in college symposiums. The goal: to repeal Maryland's death penalty.

His group is part of the coalition that plans to demonstrate at 3 dTC p.m. today outside the Maryland Penitentiary to protest the execution of Thanos, who was convicted of murdering three teen-agers in 1990.

Mr. Riener, 46, a Georgetown University graduate and a former psychotherapist, lives in Northwest Washington and works full time at Let Live, earning an annual salary of about $20,000. The group receives grants and contributions from church groups opposed to the death penalty, he said.

He said he developed his opposition to the death penalty in the late 1970s, when the execution date was drawing near for a Florida inmate.

"It grabbed me, pulled me in, and I've been involved ever since," said Mr. Riener, who was reared in a Catholic family in Northeast Philadelphia, where his father was a chemist and his mother a housewife.

"I thought, 'Here's a person sitting in a cell who's not at that moment a threat, and they take him out and kill him. This is we as a society taking someone's life.' . . . I was filled with rage and fright," he said.

Mr. Riener said he made the sign of the cross when he learned the execution had occurred. He has made that sign many times since.

"I make the sign of the cross, sort of as a memorial to them," he said, referring to the roughly 200 people who have been executed since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, four years after banning capital punishment. "I guess I'll make another sign of the cross on Monday."

He said his beliefs are not based in a particular religion, but are spiritual. Among those who have influenced him are Eugene V. Debs, the legendary labor leader, and the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson.

L Mr. Riener said he is not defending Thanos or other killers.

"My issue isn't with him," he said. "My issue is with the state putting him to death. There has to be at least a hundred people in Maryland who are just as deranged in mental hospitals and would kill if given a chance."

He said he wrote in his letter to Melody Pistorio's stepmother that he understood her quest for revenge.

"I said that if one of my children had been killed I would want to kill the person," he recalled. "But when someone has suffered a loss and is in such a state of grief, they're not in a condition to make public policy."

Mr. Riener said he is not opposed to all killing, that he believes self-defense and some military operations may necessarily involve loss of life.

He said he believes murderers should receive life without parole. He said executing killers does not deter crime and that the death penalty unfairly targets minorities -- especially those whose victims are white.

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