ACLU tries new strategy in effort to spare Thanos

The American Civil Liberties Union tried a new legal tactic yesterday in its bid to block the execution of John Frederick Thanos by arguing that a judge erred in allowing the convicted killer to waive an automatic 240-day stay of execution.

But a Baltimore County prosecutor called the ACLU argument "absurd," saying a third party cannot reassert a right for a defendant once it has been waived.


Garrett County Circuit Judge Fred A. Thayer last month ruled Thanos competent to dismiss his attorneys and waive further appeals and ordered him to die in the gas chamber during the first week in November. It would be the first execution in Maryland in 32 years.

Thanos, 44, was sentenced to death for the robbery and murder of two Baltimore County teen-agers during a weeklong crime spree in August and September 1990, during which he also killed an 18-year-old welder from Hebron.


The execution order has been stayed pending arguments next week before the state's highest court. The public defenders Thanos fired claim he is not competent to dismiss them or waive appeals.

Yesterday, ACLU lawyers intervened with a new argument -- that one of the rights Thanos waived last month before Judge Thayer is not a right, but a requirement that cannot be waived by a death row inmate.

The argument came in a friend-of-the-court brief filed before yesterday's deadline in the Court of Appeals, along with briefs from prosecutors and defense lawyers.

The high court will hear oral arguments Wednesday in Annapolis. If it rules swiftly on the issues and denies the challenges, the current stay could be lifted and the execution could go forward the following week.

The ACLU argued in its brief that the law providing an automatic 240-day stay of execution is a requirement because its language is "clear and unambiguous" and uses the word "shall" instead of "may" or some other indefinite term.

But Sue A. Schenning, the deputy state's attorney who prosecuted Thanos, said the argument is "absurd" because the 240-day stay is a procedural right, such as a right to a bail review hearing or a trial by jury, that only defendants can waive.

"There are a million procedural rights you can waive and a third party can't come in and re-assert them for you," Mrs. Schenning said.

Thanos, famous for his blunt commentary in court, has repeatedly said he wants nothing more to do with the judicial system.


Also yesterday, the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services said a "limited" number of media representatives would be permitted to witness the execution. "The number and how they will be chosen will be determined [by Saturday]," spokesman Len Sipes said.


Family and friends of Billy Winebrenner, 16, and Melody Pistorio, 14, who were killed by John Thanos, plan a can- dlelight vigil at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the murder scene, the Big Red gas station in the 9000 block of Pulaski Highway. Sup- porters of Thanos' execution are asked to bring letters in favor of the death sentence to send to the governor.