Thanos died quietly after a life of fury THE EXECUTION OF JOHN THANOS

May 18, 1994|By Michael Ollove and Sandy Banisky | Michael Ollove and Sandy Banisky,Sun Staff Writers Sun staff writers Glenn Small, Norris West and Frank Langfitt contributed to this article.

John Thanos had envisioned a blazing ending to his malignant life, a death amid a fury of gunfire. Instead, his last day included Catholic priests, two doses of Valium and the steady flow of a lethal intravenous drug.

The three-time killer died docilely at 1:10 a.m. yesterday, the first prisoner executed by the state of Maryland in 33 years. In the end, he was the still center of a burst of action ignited by his coming death.

A lawyer for another death-row inmate struggled late into Monday night trying to stop the execution, first through the federal courts and then with the governor. A knot of death-penalty protesters stood vigil outside the Maryland Penitentiary. The ranks of reporters swelled. And witnesses, summoned from around the state, rushed to Baltimore to watch a man die.

Thanos, 45, lived his last day in a prison cell on the second floor of the Maryland Penitentiary, 40 feet away from the execution chamber. He spent the time smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee, taking naps and watching the television outside his cell. At 9 p.m., in answer to the prisoner's question, Frank Mazzone, the execution commander, acknowledged that death was imminent.

During the day, Thanos was visited repeatedly by three men, a chaplain, the Rev. Charles Canterna; the Rev. Al Rose; and prison psychologist Joseph J. Fuhrmaneck. After Mr. Fuhrmaneck's last visit at 12:27 a.m., Mr. Mazzone and Warden Sewall Smith went to Thanos' cell to ask if he wanted to stop the execution and exercise the appeal rights he had abandoned.

"No," he replied, "I'm ready."

Others were not, not the protesters carrying placards on the sidewalk outside the prison and especially not Jerome Nickerson, a lawyer from Harford County who was desperately trying to save Thanos' life despite his protests.

Mr. Nickerson, who represents another death row inmate named Tyrone Gilliam, spent the last week futilely searching for a court that would stop the Thanos execution. On Monday, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist refused to grant an injunction. Mr. Nickerson then pinned his hopes on U.S. District Court Judge William M. Nickerson (no relation) to hear his arguments against Maryland's new lethal injection statute. Failing to get a response, he convinced Walter E. Black, chief judge of the Maryland District, to hold a 10 p.m. hearing at the Lombard street courthouse.

As Mr. Nickerson approached the courthouse, he got a call on his car phone: The hearing was canceled.

Just then, Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. and his aides arrived at the courthouse. Mr. Nickerson pleaded with Mr. Curran to call Gov. William Donald Schaefer and ask for a 48-hour stay. Mr. Nickerson had made similar requests earlier in the day to Jill Schulze, the governor's legal adviser.

Mr. Schaefer was unmoved. Yesterday, he described his reaction to the entreaty: "Thanos is on his own."

About 10:30 p.m., Ms. Schulze told Ralph Tyler, the deputy attorney general, that the governor had not changed his mind. Mr. Tyler relayed the news to Mr. Nickerson, who, without being told, sensed that Thanos had only hours to live.

"I walked out of federal court at 10:37 and knew what was going to happen," he said. "Maryland had had a tremendous legacy. Thirty-three years of nonviolence out the window."

'He was happy'

It's hard to imagine the word nonviolence in connection to John Thanos. Mistakenly released early from a rape sentence in April 1990, he killed three teen-agers the following Labor Day weekend. In March 1992, he was sentenced to death for the murder of Gregory A. Taylor Jr., an 18-year old welder from Hebron who stopped to pick up the hitchhiking Thanos. He was also sentenced to death for the murders of Billy Winebrenner, 16, and Melody Pistorio, 14, who Thanos killed in a gas station robbery in Middle River.

From the time he was arrested for the teen-agers' murders, he was a taunting, menacing figure. In court, he made obscene gestures to prosecutors, threatened his own lawyers and snarled at his victims' families.

Thanos refused to appeal his death sentences and protested filings by the ACLU and his mother and sister, enabling Maryland to go forward with yesterday's execution.

Under Maryland law, Thanos could have been executed any time during the week beginning midnight Sunday. Thanos himself urged prison officials to hurry up.

Saturday, his mother, Pattie Matney, saw her son for the last time in a visit that lasted more than an hour. They were separated by glass. Ms. Matney said yesterday that her son was sure he wouldn't have to wait long. "He was happy," she said. At peace? "He said he was."

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