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Thanos stands aloof as his life hangs in balance Death sentence contested by others

Inside his cell at the high-security Supermax prison, John Frederick Thanos continues his routine, writing endless letters and composing neatly rhymed poetry.

The 44-year-old convicted killer seems almost resentful of the flurry of activity centered on his rendezvous with Maryland's gas chamber, scheduled for the first week of November.

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Thanos, who fatally shot two Baltimore County teen-agers during a robbery and who may force Maryland's first execution in 32 years by refusing to pursue appeals, declines interviews.

But in a letter to a reporter penned from his cell, Thanos said he is "offended" by an anti-death penalty group's fight to prevent his execution.

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"They offend the very core of me as they attempt to represent me against my resolve," Thanos wrote. He added, "My anger dissolves rather quickly 'cause I keep the focus inward, until prodded."

While prosecutors and defense attorneys prepare arguments for hearing Oct. 27 before Maryland's highest court, groups on both sides of the death penalty issue are planning vigils and demonstrations outside the prison.

Richard J. Dowling, a spokesman for the Maryland Catholic Conference, said that death penalty opponents held their second planning meeting Friday. They hope to demonstrate this month and to send a delegation of religious leaders to make a personal appeal to Gov. William Donald Schaefer to halt the execution.

A victims' support group also is preparing to demonstrate outside the prison in favor of the execution, said Carl Winebrenner, whose 16-year-old son, Billy, was killed by Thanos in 1990 during a holdup of the gas station where Billy worked. Thanos also killed Billy's girlfriend, Melody Pistorio, 14, during the robbery.

As the deadline approaches, prison officials who must carry out the sentence are scrambling to update execution regulations that were written when Dwight D. Eisenhower was president.

The last execution in Maryland's gas chamber occurred June 9, 1961, when Nathaniel Lipscomb, a 32-year-old laborer, was put to death for raping and strangling three Baltimore women.

Although the chamber has been maintained, it had to be tested, said prison spokesman Scott McCauley. Animals were not used in the testing, he said.

The octagonal gas chamber is about 9 feet high and 6 1/2 feet across. It has one chair. Some have compared it to a large telephone booth.

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The state bought it for $25,000 in 1956 and installed it in the prison hospital at the Maryland Penitentiary -- across Madison Street from Supermax -- when it abandoned hanging as a method of execution.

Exacting process

According to records kept by Vernon L. Pepersack, the former warden who oversaw the last execution, operating the gas chamber is an exacting process that requires careful preparation.

A vat under the chair is filled with sulfuric acid. The prisoner is strapped in, and sodium cyanide chips are placed in a container above the acid. The chamber is sealed and, on the warden's signal, an electronic switch drops the cyanide into the acid.

Prison officials have declined to discuss the procedure in detail. After the regulations are rewritten, print and broadcast media representatives will be allowed inside the prison to go over the procedures and examine and photograph the death chamber, Mr. McCauley said.

Prison officials also are handling requests from potential witnesses, including the parents of Billy and Melody. They have not decided if the parents will be allowed to watch the execution.

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State law says only that the warden, a physician, clergy and the sheriff of the county in which Thanos was indicted need be present. As many as 12 witnesses are allowed, and Warden Sewall B. Smith will choose them.

Issue of competence

On Wednesday, attorneys from the public defender's office plan to file their arguments. They want to show that Thanos was not mentally competent to fire them at his last hearing or to waive further appeals. They also will argue that the procedure Garrett County Circuit Judge Fred A. Thayer used to determine Thanos' competence was flawed.

Thanos' competence appears to be the only issue at the Oct. 27 hearing before the Maryland Court of Appeals.

County prosecutors and members of the attorney general's staff -- who handle capital appeals -- expect to prevail.

"We have a strong record," said Gary E. Bair, an assistant attorney general.

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Prosecutors note that Thanos has been prosecuted for various crimes over a 30-year period in Maryland and has undergone numerous psychiatric evaluations. He has never been found incompetent.

Psychiatrists and psychologists who recently evaluated him agree that he has a personality disorder, but disagree over whether it makes him incompetent to waive his appeals.

Should the Court of Appeals rule against the public defender, an appeal could be taken to the U.S. Supreme Court. Sue A. Schenning, a deputy state's attorney for Baltimore County, said that the high court is likely to respond quickly if it decides not to take the case.

Mrs. Schenning said that the Supreme Court has made such decisions within days, sometimes hours, when an execution is imminent, as it did with James Allen Red Dog, who was executed March 3 in Delaware.

Thanos' case also is being pursued in U.S. District Court in Baltimore. Last week, Judge Walter Black ordered a federal public defender to ask Thanos if he wants to be represented.

If Thanos declines, the attorneys must ask his family members if they want to file an appeal on his behalf.

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How Thanos' case ended up in federal court remains a mystery. Judge Black declined to be interviewed, and the District Court clerk's office said that the case file only contains the judge's order. James Breeder, the federal public defender assigned to talk to Thanos, did not return numerous calls.

Thomas Saunders, Maryland's public defender in capital cases, also declined to comment.

Could be moot

These legal maneuvers could be moot if Thanos changes his mind and asks to appeal or if the governor stays the execution.

Page W. Boinest, the governor's press secretary, said Friday that Mr. Schaefer is looking at the Thanos case, but has not made any decision. The governor has said his decision would not be affected by suggestions that Maryland end gas executions and switch to lethal injections.

Maryland is the only state that relies solely on gas, and another death row inmate is challenging that form of execution in court as cruel and unusual punishment.

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A hearing in that case is scheduled for Friday in Baltimore County Circuit Court.

One more step

Ms. Boinest said that the governor would not stay the execution just so Thanos could be executed later by a different means. However, the governor does favor lethal injection over gas, she said.

In the event the public defenders' appeal fails in Maryland's highest court, they can play one more card -- filing a petition in Baltimore City Circuit Court asking for yet another competency hearing. The city court has jurisdiction because the penitentiary is in the city.

The General Assembly added that procedure in 1987 as a safeguard against execution of incompetent inmates.

"Nobody's ever been this close to execution, so this has never been used," Mr. Bair said.

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Under the 1987 provision, anyone can file a petition challenging a death row inmate's competence. The only requirement is a sworn affidavit from a psychiatrist, stating that the inmate has become incompetent.

The public defender's office is considering such a petition, but has not made a final decision.

Dave Lunden, a Baltimore County prosecutor, said his office is prepared to ask for a quick competence hearing, should someone take the Circuit Court appeal.

"I don't think we'll be surprised if it's filed, but we'll be prepared for it," he said.



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