12 strangers and 2 priests watched Thanos die

May 17, 1994|By Scott Higham | Scott Higham,Sun Staff Writer Sun Staff Writer Glenn Small contributed to this article.

The scene in the execution chamber early this morning was surreal. On one side of the glass and cinder block wall was John Thanos, stretched out on a burgundy vinyl and steel table, his hands and torso bound tightly with bands of leather.

On the other stood 12 strangers and a pair of priests. They had come to watch a man die -- a somber, numbing experience for some of the witnesses, a chance to see justice carried out for the others.

Six of the witnesses work for news organizations. The others are Maryland residents who asked corrections officials if they could see the state's first execution in 33 years. Among them: a criminal justice student, a prosecutor and two businessmen.

"I didn't feel anything," Jamie Flaks, who owns Betty Brite Cleaners in Randallstown, said shortly after witnessing the 1 a.m. execution. "I feel for the people he killed. For him, no way."

An hour later, the reporters spoke about what they had seen. They seemed stunned as they sat at two tables set up in the lobby of the Maryland Penitentiary's intake unit, steps away from the state's seldom-used death house in downtown Baltimore.

They spoke in quiet tones, their eyes glassy with fatigue.

"I'm sort of in limbo right now," said Larry Roberts, a reporter for WBAL Radio.

"We were all very anxious," said Richard Sher, a reporter for WJZ Channel 13.

In the hours before the execution, a psychologist held a counseling session at State Police Headquarters in Pikesville. He told the witnesses to remember that they could be overcome with anxiety during the procedure. Together, they practiced breathing lessons.

The witnesses then boarded two blue vans for the trip to the State Pen.

Once the execution team strapped Thanos to the gurney and inserted a series of intravenous tubes into the inside of his thighs, a white curtain on the glass and concrete partition slid sideways, giving the witnesses their first look at the chamber.

Thanos was lying on his back, looking at the window. He stared at the priests, no one else.

"You can halt this at any time," execution commander Frank Mazzone told him. "Do you want to halt this?"

"Get on with it," Thanos said.

Thanos breathed deeply, his jaw slackened, the color ran from his gaunt face.

"He kept his eyes on the ceiling," said Cree Craig, a reporter for WMBT-TV in Salisbury. "He took 10 to 12 deep breaths."

Within minutes, Thanos was dead.

"You can't prepare yourself for something of this magnitude," Mr. Sher said. "In what we do, you see death all the time -- accident victims, and murder victims, and tragedies, and fires. But you're never asked to come look and see somebody die."

Some reporters said the lethal injection procedure was so simple, so clean and apparently without pain, it masked what had actually happened. They watched someone die, but it wasn't sinking in.

"You are watching this and it looks like someone is going to sleep," said Sandra Skowron, a reporter for the Associated Press. "You don't really realize the impact of what's happening."

"It's not what I expected," said Keith Paul, a reporter for the Daily Times in Salisbury. "You think about what an execution is going to be like. He went to sleep and stopped breathing. It wasn't violent. It wasn't traumatic."

Witnesses who were not part of the press corps said they were pleased by what they saw.

"I don't have any bad feelings about it, or like we shouldn't have done it," said William Berry, who owns a knife and gift shop in Frederick. "I'm glad I had the opportunity to see it."

Others said they may not forget what they saw this morning any time soon.

"It hit me for a few moments when I was watching it, and I wondered how it might affect me in a few days," said Mr. Roberts, the WBAL reporter. "Sort of having the image of this person dying burned into my consciousness, I was wondering whether that was ever going to come back to haunt me."

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