Death penalty opponents, supporters demonstrate

May 17, 1994|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,Sun Staff Writer Staff writer Michael James contributed to this story.

When the word came shortly after 1 a.m. today that John Frederick Thanos was dead, Anita Lucas, standing in a group of cheering death penalty supporters, said jubilantly, "Yes! Yes! Justice! Justice has been done tonight!"

But across the street from the Maryland Penitentiary, among a somber group of opponents of capital punishment, River Topaz, 28, had a different view.

"Tonight another senseless murder has just occurred. It hasn't proved anything and nothing has been gained by it whatsoever," said Ms. Topaz, a native of England who now lives in Maryland. "America should be ashamed of itself."

Supporters and opponents of the death penalty took up positions on either side of Forrest Street last night. They numbered just a few at the beginning, growing to about a dozen TC in each group by 1 a.m.

Ms. Lucas -- wrapped in a bedsheet to keep warm -- flashed her handmade sign at every passing vehicle.

"Eye for Eye. He Should Die," the sign read.

"That's what the Bible says," said Ms. Lucas, shivering in the late-night breeze. "I'm no saint, but I've never done anything like that. The bottom line -- taxpayers are letting this one and many others like him live and live pretty well. When you commit murder . . ."

She flashed the sign again, letting the written words complete her thought: "Eye for Eye. He Should Die."

Another death penalty supporter carried a sign that read, "Grieve for the Victims. Let him Die."

Across the street, opponents of the death penalty carried signs with a different message: "Abolish the death penalty," and "Thou shalt not kill."

There were no skirmishes between the groups and no bickering. There apparently was no need for the dozens of Baltimore City police officers and Maryland state police troopers who patrolled the area on foot and in vehicles. Some of the supporters of the death penalty even spoke of their respect for the views of those who oppose capital punishment.

Last night, the number of on-lookers was fairly small considering that Maryland was staging its first execution in 33 years. For most of the night outside the prison, the largest group was made up of television news crews.

The smallness of the crowd may have been what Maryland legislators had in mind in 1922 when they passed a law prohibiting public dissemination of the time and date of executions. Other provisions of that law have since been repealed, such as execution by hanging, but the secrecy provision remains in effect.

The law's intention, the legislation states, is "to relieve the counties of this state from the curious mobs that frequent hangings taking place in the counties of this state and [from those] who attempt to make public affairs of same."

This was not the scene at the execution of John Wayne Gacy, who was executed May 10 in Illinois for 33 murders. More than 80 people showed up to protest Gacy's execution, and were outnumbered by death penalty supporters, said Seth M. Donnelly, director of the Illinois Coalition Against the Death Penalty.

"We knew the exact minute that Gacy was supposed to be put to death," said Mr. Donnelly. "That meant that not only could we make a presence to protest the state's plan to take a life, but people could make a plan to celebrate the execution."

He criticized Maryland's law as being political.

"I think that's a horrible system," Mr. Donnelly said. "That's the way the military systems act in Latin America. You don't know when they're going to strike, you just know that they will."

John Furst, 34, an opponent of capital punishment from Parkville, said he was upset that Maryland law prohibits disclosing the date and time of an execution.

"The impression they give is that this is shrouded in night, cloaked with secrecy. It seems like they're ashamed, as they should be," Mr. Furst said, holding a sign that said, "Execution is Murder."

None of the protesters said they knew the execution would take place early today.

Mr. Furst said Thanos "belongs in prison for the rest of his life" for murdering three teen-agers. He said his conscience brought him to the prison to hold one last demonstration.

Meredith Males of Southwest Baltimore sat by the curb, holding a candle and a sign that read "Stop the Murder of John Thanos." She stood beside Brian Barrett of Bolton Hill, whose sign stated, "No Death Penalty."

"I'm here to stand up for [the lives] of the many people on death row," said Mr. Barrett, a member of the Baltimore Emergency Response Network and Viva House. "The state must not take their [lives], certainly not in my name."

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