Opponents of the death penalty, who have been quietly lobbying and organizing against the scheduled execution of killer John F. Thanos, unveiled their formal campaign yesterday with a news conference in Baltimore.
"If the state executes John Thanos, we will be on the same level as John Thanos," said the Rev. David W. Rogers, pastor of Grace United Church of Christ in South Baltimore, site of the gathering.
Mr. Rogers was one of five speakers who attacked the death penalty as morally wrong, ineffective in deterring crime and discriminatory against minorities.
Rodney A. Orange, president of the Baltimore branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, reiterated the group's long-standing opposition to the death penalty, which he said has been used disproportionately against African-Americans -- though Thanos, who would the first prisoner to die in Maryland's gas chamber in 32 years, is white.
Dr. Orange noted that his own son was murdered by burglars in 1988 and said that he understands the pain victims of crime feel. "They have never found those who killed my son," Dr. Orange said. "But if they did, I would not want them to receive the death penalty."
Like the other speakers, Dr. Orange said that having the state kill murderers does not deter crime. He said that the problem lies in how children are raised, and a lack of personal responsibility.
"We have lost the moral teachings we used to give our children," Dr. Orange said.
He said he recently asked two different youth groups if anyone present could recite the Ten Commandments.
"Not one young person could," he said.
Mary Gray, a member of the human rights group Amnesty International, noted that the United States is the last Western nation to retain the death penalty.
"We don't consider the death penalty to be a crime issue," Ms. Gray said. "We consider it to be a human rights issue. The death penalty does not deter crime. . . . It doesn't do anything for the victims' families."
Several speakers expressed their sympathy for the families of Billy Winebrenner, 16, and Melody Pistorio, 14, two teen-agers whom Thanos murdered during a 1990 Baltimore County holdup.
Thanos, who has said he wants no further appeals, was scheduled to die next week. But his public defenders and the American Civil Liberties Union won a stay of execution while the Court of Appeals decides whether he is competent and whether he can waive an automatic, 240-day stay of execution.
On Sunday, death penalty opponents will hold a rally outside the Maryland Penitentiary from 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tomorrow, Donald Cabana, former warden of Parchman Prison in Mississippi, will come to Baltimore to speak against the death penalty. He oversaw several gas chamber executions in Mississippi and now opposes capital punishment.