John Frederick Thanos is a step closer to the gas chamber after failing to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review his conviction for murdering an Eastern Shore welder.
Thanos, 44, missed Friday's deadline for filing an appeal with the Supreme Court. Now, his only legal option is to seek a new trial by filing a post-conviction petition in state court. That appeal must be filed within eight months -- 240 days -- after the July 2 deadline for the Supreme Court appeal.
Thanos faces three death sentences for murdering the welder and two Baltimore County teen-agers during a 1990 crime spree. He has not appealed any of the convictions, and he could become the first person to be put to death in Maryland since 1961.
Gary E. Bair, head of criminal appeals in the Maryland attorney general's office, said yesterday that Thanos could be put to death in March -- or even sooner -- if a judge allows him him to waive his rights to a post-conviction hearing and then signs a death warrant.
A date would be set for execution four to eight weeks after the death warrant was issued, he added.
Citing lawyer-client privilege, state public defenders yesterday declined to say whether Thanos chose not to file a petition with the Supreme Court and whether he plans to seek a post-conviction appeal. But in earlier court proceedings, Thanos has stated that he wanted to be executed.
"Keep in mind that this time limit [for post-conviction relief] is lengthy, and anyone can change their minds in 240 days," said Nancy M. Cohen, a public defender representing Thanos.
Thanos has until Sept. 7 to seek a U.S. Supreme Court appeal on his convictions in the murders of the Baltimore County teen-agers.
In March 1992, a St. Mary's County judge sentenced Thanos to death for the murder of Gregory Taylor, 18, who was fatally shot with a sawed-off rifle and dumped in rural Worcester County after giving Thanos a ride in his car in August 1990.
A Garrett County judge imposed two more death sentences on Thanos in June 1992 for the murders of Middle River teen-agers Billy Winebrenner, 16, and Melody Pistorio, 14, who were killed with a sawed-off rifle at a gas station three days after Mr. Taylor's murder.
While declining to discuss specifics of the Thanos case, Thomas J. Saunders, chief of the Maryland Public Defender's capital defense division, said a defendant would have to consent to a Supreme Court appeal.
Mr. Saunders said a post-conviction appeal, filed in the jurisdiction where the defendant was convicted, could possibly lead to a new trial if a serious legal error was made during trial but not revealed in previous appeals.
All three of Thanos' murder convictions were upheld earlier this year by the Maryland Court of Appeals, which automatically reviews all death-penalty convictions.
Mr. Bair said it is highly unusual for the public defender's office not to file a Supreme Court petition for a death-row inmate.
"This would be the first time they haven't filed," Mr. Bair said. "If it was up to them, they would have done it. If they didn't, I would assume it's because [Thanos] didn't want them to do it."
He said he asked St. Mary's County Circuit Judge Marvin S. Kaminetz in April to set a hearing to determine whether a death warrant should be issued. Judge Kaminetz imposed the first death sentence upon Thanos. But the public defender's office has opposed such a hearing before appeals are exhausted, and no proceedings have been set.
Mr. Bair said he also will ask Garrett County Circuit Judge Fred A. Thayer III, who sentenced Thanos to death for the Middle River murders, to schedule death-warrant hearings.
He said a hearing would give Thanos an opportunity to waive his right to a 240-day stay of execution and begin the final chain of events leading to the gas chamber.
"We're hoping that Judge Thayer will do something," Mr. Bair said. "If [Thanos] waives all these appeals on the record and says, 'Execute me,' then why not go ahead with the process. It would still be within his power to change his mind at any time during the 240 days, right up to the day before execution."