Hard Deaths and Easy Deaths

May 19, 1994|By PETER A. JAY

Havre de Grace -- Inadvertent it may perhaps have been, but the late and unlamented John Thanos has probably made a significant long-term contribution to the causes of order and justice. Marylanders in years to come may have reason to be grateful to him.

In going deliberately to his execution on Tuesday, after fighting off the swarms of writ-waving lawyers who wanted to keep him alive to prove a point, Thanos made himself a human Roto-Rooter. His death by lethal injection blew open a drain that had been clogged for 33 years.

From a public-health standpoint, the short-term results of this action aren't yet clear. There remains -- to continue the plumbing analogy -- a certain amount of septic residue backed up in the cellar of the state's so-called corrections system, and it won't all be flushed away soon. But at least we know now that the old pipes are still intact, and can be used when necessary.

Just as important as the fact of Thanos' departure from this vale of tears was the manner in which it was accomplished. He was the first person executed in Maryland by lethal injection, a method calculated to minimize physical pain, and witnesses' accounts gave little indication that he suffered.

Unlike the Illinois execution earlier this month of the mass-murderer John Wayne Gacy, also by lethal injection, the Maryland procedure appeared to be technologically trouble-free. In fact, it was sufficiently peaceful so that after it was over, some relatives of the three teen-agers Thanos had murdered found themselves with mixed feelings.

They were relieved that he was gone, they said, but they also found themselves wondering if he hadn't in some slippery and devious way eluded proper earthly retribution. Considering the havoc he had wreaked during his life, his death seemed almost too easy, too peaceful.

These are sentiments we will be hearing again. They may turn out to be important indicators of the way the entire debate over capital punishment is shifting.

If the hypodermic syringe becomes the American executioner's standard tool, and if it becomes commonplace for felons to be dispatched as was Thanos, peacefully and to all appearances comfortably, those on the hard-line fringe of the argument can be expected to raise the objection that execution by lethal injection is insufficiently dreadful.

If the bloodthirsty minority is noisy enough, it'll lend new respectability to those advocating a more centrist position. Once bumper stickers favoring the return of the gas chamber start appearing, moderates on the death-penalty question will surely begin to see lethal injection as a more acceptable compromise than they do today.

Obviously, there is no truly satisfactory way for society to put a human being to death, and there will always be substantial numbers of people who believe it should never do so under any circumstances. But as current discussion of such varied topics as mercy killings and living wills indicates, the difference between hard deaths and easier deaths is very much on the American mind.

The demise of John Thanos may have been premature in a strictly actuarial sense, but people every day of the year meet harder ends on highways and in hospital beds. Constitutionally or practically, it's difficult to make a very compelling case that what the State of Maryland did to this particular defendant on Tuesday morning was cruel.

Ultimately, the weary old argument over the death penalty's value in deterring serious crime is more theological than practical. Yes, violent crime has dramatically risen in the 40 years since capital punishment began to fall out of favor, and no, there's no way to prove there's a connection.

Public opinion in the United States is not generally vindictive.

What's important to most people is not what's done to criminals, but whether crime is effectively controlled.

Putting criminals in jail prevents them from committing crimes as long as they're incarcerated, but the risk of doing significant time for any given crime is lower now than at any time in American history. Criminals know this, and act accordingly. The public knows it too, and in desperation demands the return of the death penalty.

Politicians who should know better say that more prisons aren't the answer, when in fact they're probably the best answer. In 1960, according to one recent study, there were 90 people in prison for every 1,000 serious crimes; in 1990 there were only 30. If we jailed people at the rate we did in 1960, neither crime nor capital punishment would be priority issues.

John Thanos' execution was a positive step toward a saner public policy on crime. But it's worth remembering as well that if he'd been kept in jail where he belonged back in 1990, three promising young lives would have been spared.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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