A Garrett County Circuit Court judge stayed the scheduled execution of convicted killer John Frederick Thanos yesterday, pending the outcome of an appeal filed by an attorney Thanos fired last week.
Despite the stay, Thanos' execution could still take place the week of Nov. 1, because yesterday Maryland's highest court agreed to expedite the case and hear oral arguments Oct. 27.
Last week, Judge Fred A. Thayer set the stage for Maryland's first execution in 32 years by ruling Thanos, 43, competent to fire counsel and waive further appeals. At the time, Judge Thayer refused to stay his execution order.
But also last week, Thomas Saunders, head of the capital defense division of the Office of the Public Defender, appealed to the Court of Appeals on grounds that Judge Thayer erred in finding Thanos competent.
A Maryland rule of criminal procedure makes a stay of execution automatic when appeals are filed, even if the appeal is filed against the defendant's wishes.
"His signing of the stay has not affected anything, in our opinion," said Sue Schenning, a deputy state's attorney for Baltimore County.
If the high court makes a quick ruling, the execution could still take place between Nov. 1 and Nov. 8, Mrs. Schenning said, adding that the judge had little choice but to stay the execution order. "There's no way around that," she said.
Thanos, convicted of robbing and killing two Baltimore County teen-agers, was sentenced to death in June 1992 by Judge Thayer. The Court of Appeals affirmed his death sentence this June.
In numerous letters and in open court, Thanos has said he wants no further appeals. He fired Mr. Saunders last week and waived his right to further appeals.
His unusual stance eliminates the lengthy appeals process afforded murderers facing execution in Maryland's gas chamber. His position is similar to that of James Allen Red Dog, whom Delaware authorities executed in March. He, too, declined to pursue further appeals of his death sentence.
At a hearing last week, Mr. Saunders called a defense expert who testified that Thanos is not competent to waive further appeals. Lawrence Donner, a clinical psychologist from Baltimore, said that Thanos has a history of suicide attempts and that the desire to drop the appeals is really a suicide gesture.
Dr. Annette Hanson, a psychiatrist called by the state, said Thanos was competent to make those decisions. She said that despite suffering from a personality disorder, Thanos is clear and lucid.
Thanos murdered Billy Winebrenner, 16, and Melody Pistorio, 14, during a robbery of the Big Red gasoline station in Middle River, where Billy worked on Labor Day 1990. The teen-agers were shot several times in the head at close range with a sawed-off .22 caliber semiautomatic rifle.
Thanos also has been convicted of the robbery and murder of Gregory Taylor, an 18-year-old welder from Hebron.