OAKLAND -- A Garrett County judge set the stage for Maryland's first execution in 32 years yesterday by ordering convicted killer John Frederick Thanos to the gas chamber during the first week in November.
Circuit Judge Fred A. Thayer made his ruling after Thanos fired his lawyers and waived his right to further appeals. Thanos' public defenders said they would immediately seek a stay from Maryland's highest court on the grounds that Thanos, 43, was not competent to waive his right to appeal.
Unless they succeed, Thanos will go to the gas chamber between Nov. 1 and Nov. 8 under a death warrant signed by Judge Thayer.
Thanos was convicted of killing Billy Winebrenner, 16, and Melody Pistorio, 14, who were shot in the head at point-blank range with a sawed-off .22-caliber assault rifle during a Labor Day 1990 robbery of the Big Red gasoline station in the 9000 block of Pulaski Highway in Middle River. The trial was moved to Garrett County.
The murder of the teen-agers capped a weeklong spree in which Thanos also robbed and killed Gregory Taylor, an 18-year-old welder from Hebron, shot a convenience store clerk in Salisbury and robbed a cabdriver and locked him in his trunk.
Thanos, who has frequently lashed out at judges and lawyers during court appearances, denied yesterday having a death wish, saying he would rather kill people than be executed. But he said he is tired of appeals and court proceedings.
"It's an effort for me to walk into this courtroom. I don't want to recognize anyone as an authority over John Thanos," he said.
Because of Thanos' unequivocal statements, Judge Thayer did not issue a stay of his death warrant.
But Thomas Saunders, chief of the capital defense division of the Office of the Public Defender, said he would ask the Maryland Court of Appeals today to stay the execution on grounds that Judge Thayer erred in finding Thanos legally competent to waive his rights to counsel and further appeals.
Mr. Saunders argued that Judge Thayer shouldn't allow Thanos "to use the courts to commit suicide."
Sue Schenning, a deputy state's attorney for Baltimore County, said the appeal is unlikely to succeed, since the state's highest court ruled as recently as June 7 that Thanos was competent when it affirmed his conviction and death sentences.
"This is a just and deserved punishment," Mrs. Schenning said. "We're finally coming to some closure on this for the family of the victims."
If the death warrant is not stayed, Thanos will become the first Maryland prisoner executed since 1961, when Nathaniel Lipscomb was sent to his death for the rape and strangling of three Baltimore women.
There are 13 other Maryland prisoners under death sentences. But, unlike Thanos, they have used the state's lengthy appeals process, and none of those cases has progressed as far as Thanos'.
The gas chamber at the Maryland Penitentiary is ready for use whenever the first death warrant arrives, said Leonard A. Sipes Jr., spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.
"The gas chamber is kept in a state of perpetual preparation," he said.
Melody Pistorio's father, Ed, who has attended all of the trials and hearings with the young victim's stepmother, Joni, said he would like to attend the execution.
"That's personal satisfaction," he said. "I wasn't there when my daughter was killed, but I could be present for the death of the man who snuffed her life out."
"This could have been drug out a lot longer. Mr. Thanos is accommodating all of us. He wants it over with, he wants it done."
Thanos was true to the form he established in earlier court appearances. He began by hissing at a Department of Corrections guard to take his handcuffs off.
He then lashed out at Mr. Saunders, his court-appointed attorney, saying, "And you, you little twerp, you get . . . away from me. You go sit somewhere else."
Thanos frequently interrupted the proceedings, including his lawyer's argument about his alleged death wish. "I don't want to die. I want to kill something. I'd like to jump up there and kill that woman right there," he said, pointing to Joni Pistorio.
Mrs. Pistorio said later, "My heart was pounding a mile a minute."
Competency at issue
At issue in yesterday's hearing was whether Thanos was mentally competent to fire his lawyers and waive his rights to further appeals, since those decisions would lead him to the gas chamber.
He had written numerous letters to that effect, and he allowed various deadlines for filing appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court to pass.
Dr. Annette Hanson, a psychiatrist called by the prosecution, testified that Thanos suffers from a borderline personality hTC disorder but is clear and lucid, without any symptoms of a major mental disorder.
"Mr. Thanos is much more perceptive and intelligent than the average inmate," Dr. Hanson said. "He is more articulate than the average inmate."
She said Thanos had told her that he knew forgoing appeals would lead to his death but that he wanted nothing further to do with society. She said he also didn't want to put his family through any more pain.
Dr. Hanson quoted Thanos as saying he didn't relish the prospect of spending the rest of his life in a tiny cell, watching television and being "tortured by Oprah Winfrey."
" 'Regret has nothing to do with my decision,' " she said he told her. "He's essentially saying he's not doing it to punish himself."
Lawrence Donner, a Baltimore psychologist who testified at Thanos' trials, appeared yesterday for the defense. He said Thanos can appreciate what is happening to him but cannot assist in his own defense and is therefore not competent to dismiss his attorneys.
Mr. Donner based his opinion on Thanos' letters and remarks he has made over the last 18 months. Thanos would not allow Mr. Donner to interview him, he said.
Judge Thayer said there is a difference between refusing to assist counsel and being unable to assist counsel. He ruled Thanos competent.
At 1:55 p.m. yesterday, Judge Thayer finished asking Thanos a series of questions to determine whether he was voluntarily waiving his rights.
His final question was, "Do you have any reservations at all?"
"None whatsoever," Thanos replied.
It is not clear whether other organizations will take up the battle. Stuart Comstock-Gay, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said he didn't know what action the ACLU might take.
"We oppose the death penalty in any and all situations, and the fact that someone wants the state to kill him is irrelevant to our consideration," he said. "The fact that somebody wants to commit suicide doesn't mean the state should do it."