Judges weigh Thanos execution challenge Levity perturbs victims' families JOHN THANOS--THE STRUGGLE OVER THE DEATH PENALTY


ANNAPOLIS -- There was occasional laughter inside the Maryland Court of Appeals chambers yesterday morning, as the seven judges jousted good-naturedly with attorneys. There was

friendly professional debate over fine legal points.

Later, Joni Pistorio would allow quietly that she'd found the laughter inappropriate.

She'd come to court to mark another step toward the execution of John Thanos, convicted of murdering her stepdaughter, Melody Pistorio, 14, and Billy Winebrenner, 16, in a 1990 holdup. The legal debate, with its pleasant discussion, is not what she's focused on.

Thanos, convicted of both killings, has said he wants to die. The parents of his victims say they're confident the state eventually will oblige him.

But yesterday, Joni and Ed Pistorio, Carl Winebrenner and Donna Dillon, Melody's mother, had to sit through yet another hearing in yet another courtroom, caught up in Thanos' legal drama -- as they have been since September 1990.

"It's like our whole lives have been in his hands for three years," Mrs. Pistorio said.

The families traveled to Garrett County, in Western Maryland, for Thanos' trial. They've attended all the hearings. Mr. Pistorio says that his vacation time is spent in courtrooms. "I'd like to stand up and have my say," Mrs. Pistorio said. "Just one time. It's hard to sit in court for three years and not have my say."

On this gray morning, she was standing on the steps of the court building, holding a snapshot of Melody and her sister, Angie, for the television cameras. The photograph was taken on Melody's last Christmas, in 1989. Her sister is just 10 months older. "They were very close," Mr. Pistorio said.

The girls were only 2 and 3 years old, when the Pistorios began dating. Now there are two younger children -- Robbie, who's 11, and Samantha, who's 5. "My 11-year-old is having a really, really hard time about this," Mrs. Pistorio said.

As the time of the hearing neared, the families finally made their way past the reporters and cameras and into the courtroom, where they took whatever seats they could find.

Sitting quietly in the courtroom yesterday were representatives of groups that oppose the death penalty. Joe Reiner, of Let Live, said he attended a vigil Tuesday night held in memory of the two murdered teen-agers. He found Mr. Pistorio in the crowd and offered condolences, but explained that "the state shouldn't imitate the killer."

"He was very kind," Mr. Reiner said of Mr. Pistorio. "He thanked me and he said, 'Well, we disagree on that.' "

Frank Dunbaugh, another death-penalty opponent, said that the public uses executions "as a substitute for directing our attention to the potential Thanoses who are already in our juvenile system and the corrections system."

He agreed that the courtroom atmosphere had been remarkably relaxed. "Gallows humor?" he asked.

"Everyone seemed a little giddy," Mr. Reiner said.

Not the families. They left the courtroom saying they had heard nothing new. And they are still certain that John Thanos will die in the gas chamber.

"The system is working," Mrs. Pistorio said. "Or, at least, it's going to work for John Thanos."

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