OAKLAND -- John Frederick Thanos, sporting a pair of wire-rimmed reading glasses and with his hair cut in a military-style wiffle, sat in court yesterday with his legs crossed. He looked more like a bemused spectator at a play than a man who could receive the death penalty if convicted of murdering two Middle River teen-agers.
Thanos, 42, who at the time of his arrest in September 1990 wore his hair long, with a pony tail dangling behind him, has drastically changed his appearance for his trial here in Garrett County Circuit Court on charges of first-degree murder and armed robbery.
Throughout a second day of lawyers' painstaking questioning of potential jurors, Thanos spent his time alternately peering professorially over his glasses as he made notes on a pad and whispered to his attorneys, who frequently smiled or laughed at Thanos' comments.
The image is in stark contrast to that of the man who prosecutors say robbed 16-year- old gas station clerk Billy Winebrenner on Sept. 3, 1990, then cold-bloodedly shot in the head both young Winebrenner and his girlfriend, Melody Pistorio, 14, after the youth had passively handed over cash. Melody Pistorio died the day of the shooting at the Big Red gasoline station in the 9000 block of Pulaski Highway. Billy Winebrenner died about a week later.
Jury selection in the case, which began Monday, was to continue today and might not be completed until tomorrow, according to Judge Fred A. Thayer.
The case was moved to Garrett County at the request of Thanos' three public defenders because of pretrial publicity, but it is not the issue of pretrial publicity that has slowed to a crawl the selection of jurors.
Most of the potential jurors who have been interviewed said they have seen or heard nothing of Thanos -- or of the man "with the distinctive ponytail" as defense attorney Jim McCarthy frequently put it.
This town of roughly 2,500 -- in a county with only 25,000 residents -- does not receive Baltimore television stations, even on cable. Few jurors said they had read a Baltimore newspaper. "Pittsburgh is 100 miles away," explained Orphans' Court Judge Clifford C. DeWitt, who is also the former clerk of the Circuit Court. "Baltimore is 200 miles away. People here generally follow the Pittsburg Steelers or the Pirates in baseball. They don't know much about Baltimore."
Jury selection is moving slowly because Judge Thayer agreed to a defense request that each juror be brought into the courtroom individually and questioned. So far, only 26 jurors have been qualified to serve. Because each side is allowed a certain number of strikes, lawyers here say they need a pool of 54 qualified jurors in order to seat a jury of 12.