Thanos and the Case Against Capital Punishment THE EXECUTION OF JOHN THANOS


Early last Tuesday morning, Maryland executed John Thanos. Sixteen years after we enacted our current death penalty law. More than 7,000 reported Maryland homicides later. After more than 135 state death penalty sentencing hearings, resulting in more than 57 death penalties. Thirty-three years after we executed Nathanial Lipscomb, the last person before Thanos.

This experience confirms the wisdom of leaving life-and-death decisions to an immortal and infallible decision-maker. Our death penalty pleases neither its advocates, who are frustrated by a seemingly endless appeals process, or its foes, who believe that process produces random, racially biased and arbitrary results.

It is apparent why we executed John Thanos. He committed atrocious crimes. He brutally stole the lives of three innocent teen-agers and sentenced their surviving families to lifetimes of heart-breaking memories. No secular system of justice can commute these dreadful sentences. And he taunted the supporters of capital punishment and frustrated its opponents by volunteering to be executed.

It would seem to be an open-and-shut case. But let's look at the costs of our homicide -- much more troubling costs than the estimated $400,000 it costs, from trial through final appeal, to execute a person.

By executing murderers, we make them celebrities. Our unintended message for those like Thanos who are mentally unbalanced is that homicide is a pathway to recognition. Thanos seemed perversely attracted, not repelled, by the death penalty.

We could have sentenced Thanos to civil death. A natural lifetime in harsh and secure isolation. A lifetime of anonymity. Just another prisoner doing hard time. For Thanos, that would have been the ultimate punishment.

In killing him, we reaffirmed that state-sponsored death denies the humanity of the executioner, as well as the executed. Throughout the macabre process, Thanos was the deranged principal. The state was his agent, a sleazy cartoon version of Dr. Jack Kevorkian.

Thanos had wanted to die for a long time. Upon arrest for the homicide for which he was executed, he expressed that hope. While awaiting trial, he swallowed 14 sharpened pencils, 15 spoons, his eyeglasses and a plastic toothbrush, sharpened at both ends. He had tried to commit suicide, or at least to hurt himself severely, on more than a dozen documented occasions before that. He tried to waive all appeals. He finally found a submissive agent to do what he could not successfully do himself.

Worse yet, to kill Thanos we first had to imitate him. To be legal, governmental killings must be carefully planned and carried out. So we wrote an execution manual and carefully followed it, illustrating precisely why our government, "the omnipresent teacher," should not kill. "For good or for ill," Justice Louis Brandeis wrote, "government teaches the whole people." When the state's best lawyers, judges and correctional officials kill by the book, in the most premeditated and deliberate way imaginable, it teaches us all the wrong lessons.

Which lessons? That "medical support staff," with a "syringe," an "angiocath," "IV bags," "needle locks," a "stethoscope" and other medical equipment, should assist the "Execution Commander" in the "Lethal Injection Chamber." That the "Officer in Charge or his designee," at the direction of the "Execution Commander," should "insert the angiocath into the vein[s] of the inmate's right and left arms" so that one member of the "Injection Team" can "administer the lethal dose" of drugs. That, after injection, a "medical doctor" should examine the person to pronounce him dead, before another official "remove [s] all clothing," "photograph[s] the body" and "turn[s] it over to the Death Watch Team, who shall place it in a body bag and handle disposition." That the "Assistant Commissioner for Treatment" -- the official ultimately responsible for providing humane care and treatment to Maryland's prisoners -- should give "pre-execution inoculation training to the Execution Team." This cookbook prescription for killing drains the moral content from capital punishment.

The state's ultimate lesson is particularly troubling when it executes those who are mentally ill. Despite his intelligence and destructively sardonic wit, Thanos was typical of death row inmates in this respect. His sentencing judge found that his "capacity to appreciate the criminality of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the requirements of law was substantially impaired as a result of mental incapacity, a mental disorder or emotional disturbance."

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