Eyewitnesses satisfy a compelling curiosity

May 18, 1994|By Scott Higham | Scott Higham,Sun Staff Writer Sun staff writer Glenn Small contributed to this article.

Jamie Flaks always wanted to witness an execution.

In his native Argentina, where he worked as a jail house guard before coming to the U.S., executions are banned. When he heard Maryland was preparing to execute John Frederick Thanos, Mr. Flaks, a Randallstown businessman, asked state prison officials for a chance to witness the death.

Mr. Flaks, 61, got his chance early yesterday.

"When I went back home, I couldn't forget his face," he said, hours after watching Thanos die in the state's execution chamber. "All night long, I couldn't forget. The last second when his eyes were closed and his mouth was half open. His face was on my mind."

Mr. Flaks was one of six in the general population selected to see the first execution in Maryland since 1961. He was among nearly 40 people who wrote to the warden and other prison officers, seeking a spot on the short witness list.

Half the letters came from corrections department employees. None was selected.

The rest of the unsolicited letters came from students and prosecutors, businesspeople and curiosity seekers. Some said they "wanted to see the bastard die." Others said they simply wanted to see justice in a case against a man who committed a string of cruel crimes.

A prison psychologist screened the candidates. He called many -- asking them to explain why they wanted to attend, whether they had any history of trauma, and if they were related to the victims or the families.

"We wanted to make sure that people had the appropriate demeanor and that they would treat this properly," said Dr. Anthony Swetz, a psychologist for the prison system.

Dr. Swetz said family members of the victims were not selected because other states such as California warned against it. State experts cautioned that witnessing executions can cause deep psychological problems for parents, brothers or sisters of murder victims. "Their advice to us was, in terms of trying to help families recover from the trauma of crime, it wasn't necessarily in the best interest of the families to participate," Dr. Swetz said.

After interviewing the candidates, Dr. Swetz and Commissioner of Correction Richard Lanham narrowed the list to six finalists. Mr. Flaks and five others were notified last Friday and told to be ready to witness the execution this week.

Six witnesses who work for news organizations also were selected.

In the hours before the execution, Dr. Swetz held a counseling session. He told the 12 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.

The scene in the execution chamber was surreal. On one side of the glass and cinder block wall was Thanos. On the other stood the witnesses. An hour after the 1 a.m. execution, reporters spoke about what they had seen in quiet tones, their eyes glassy with fatigue.

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

"I don't feel anything for him, because he didn't give the other people he killed a chance," said Mr. Flaks, who owns a dry cleaning company in Randallstown. "I didn't see him like a human being. He was a criminal.

"This is something you don't see every day," he said. "I liked to see justice."

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