Other death cases probably unaffected

May 17, 1994|By Glenn Small | Glenn Small,Sun Staff Writer Sun staff writer Frank Langfitt contributed to this article.

Maryland's first execution in 33 years may be its last for a while -- unless there's another volunteer like John Frederick Thanos.

"Thanos is sort of the unusual one, because he skipped ahead of everyone" else on death row, said Gary E. Bair, Maryland's assistant attorney general in charge of criminal appeals.

Thanos, 45, jumped ahead of the 13 other prisoners under death sentence by refusing to file state and federal appeals. None of the other inmates on death row has declined to file appeals, and attorneys estimate that it could take two years before the next inmate has exhausted his appeals to the point where execution is imminent.

"Legally, I don't think the [Thanos] execution will have any

effect" on other death penalty cases, said H. Mark Stichel, an attorney representing death row inmate Donald Thomas.

Thomas, who is under sentence of death for the Baltimore County murders of an Arbutus couple, Donald and Sarah Spurling, filed a federal appeal yesterday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.

The federal appeal is the last stage of a three-step appeal process in death penalty cases. First, there is direct appeal through the state courts, then a series of post-conviction appeals and, finally, a habeas corpus appeal through the federal courts.

Flint Gregory Hunt, another death row inmate, also filed a federal appeal recently.

Mr. Bair said that federal appeals in death penalty cases usually take about two years to litigate.

"My thought is it's going to be a couple more years, absent a volunteer like Thanos, until we see another execution in Maryland," said Mr. Bair.

That assumes that appeals by other death row inmates will be rejected. At any stage of the process, a condemned inmate can win a new sentencing hearing. If that happens, his appeals process begins anew.

Sometimes, one inmate's challenge of the death penalty laws affects other death penalty cases, as happened twice in Maryland in the mid-1980s.

In two separate death penalty cases, the U.S. Supreme Court found flaws in Maryland's death penalty law, which meant that all those sentenced to death in the state had to be resentenced under new procedures, said Mr. Bair.

There has been no appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court in the Thanos case because he did not ask for one, and lawyers who were filing appeals on behalf of his mother and sister ended their efforts to save his life last week before they reached the Supreme Court.

Some of Maryland's death penalty cases have been making their way through the complex appeal system for more than a decade.

On the final day of the 1994 General Assembly, legislators killed a Schaefer administration bill designed to speed up the death PTC penalty appeals process and reduce the time between sentencing and execution to six years.

Black, urban legislators oppose the measure, saying the death penalty is imposed disproportionately against blacks, and together with other death penalty opponents they were able to block the legislation.

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