Execution as a Ritual

May 18, 1994

The murder for which John Thanos was executed yesterday morning was one of three he committed in Maryland in 1990. Other murderers that year killed 549 other victims. Only Thanos was executed for his crime. If that's not "unusual punishment," which is forbidden by the U.S. Constitution and the Maryland Declaration of Rights, then "unusual" has no meaning any more.

The plain fact of life and death in Maryland (and in other states) is that execution for capital crimes is so rare, so unusual as to resemble a lottery. You have to kill to lose, but not everybody who kills loses. Of course, not every murderer is caught and convicted, but hardly any murderer who is caught and convicted is sentenced to death.

According to the Maryland Division of Correction, state's attorneys obtained 1,200 first-degree murder convictions from 1978 through 1992. Only 104 of those led to capital sentencing procedures. Only 41 of those 104 were sentenced to death, and, after appeals, only 13 of those remain under a death sentence today. That doesn't include John Thanos. So 14 out of 1,200 first-degree murderers caught, tried and convicted got the death penalty for good. (Maybe. Some of the 13 men on Death Row today may still avoid execution, due to reviews of their sentences.)

Death sentences are so rare and so evenly spaced chronologically in Maryland that one way to look at them is as annual rituals. Of those 13 Death Row inmates, one committed his murder in 1980, one in 1982, one in 1983, one in 1985, one in 1986, one in 1987, three in 1988, two in 1989, one in 1991 (and Thanos' crime was in 1990.) Looks like a pattern to us. A ritualistic state decision to sacrifice a murderer a year for the purpose of -- of what?

Justice for the survivors of murder victims? Then what about justice for the survivors of the many more numerous victims whose murderers were not sentenced to death?

Perhaps the purpose of the ritual is to deter other murders. We shall see if that works in Maryland. It hasn't worked very well in other states. The number of murders rose in Maryland in the decade from 1983-1992, during which time there was a death penalty but no executions; but the number of murders also rose in neighboring Virginia, where there have been 24 executions since 1982. Texas leads the nation in executions since the

Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty. During that period violent crime of all kinds has risen more in Texas than the national average.

Death by execution in Maryland, as in other states, is going to prove as random, rare and unjust as elsewhere, and, you can be sure, no more effective in law enforcement's efforts to reduce the amount of violent crime.

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