Fearing that convicted killer John Frederick Thanos could be executed immediately if Maryland's highest court rules that he should die, a federal public defender asked a U.S. District Court judge yesterday to issue a federal stay of execution.
But when a Maryland prosecutor promised that the state would not execute Thanos until at least 24 hours after the Maryland Court of Appeals rules, U.S. District Judge Benson E. Legg declined to issue the stay. He told the lawyers to return Tuesday morning to discuss the issue.
"We got what we wanted," said James K. Bredar, a federal public defender who filed the motion for an emergency stay on behalf of Thanos through his mother and sister, Patty Thanos Matney and Diane Thanos Genco, described in legal terms as "next friends."
In yesterday's motion, Mr. Bredar wrote that Thanos' mother and sister plan to file a habeas corpus petition on Thanos' behalf, raising federal challenges to his competency and to the way his death sentence has been handled in state courts.
The execution, originally scheduled for next week, has been stayed pending a Court of Appeals ruling on two issues: Thanos' competency and the legality of his decision to waive an automatic 240-day stay of execution provided by Maryland law. That stay dissolves as soon as the high court rules.
Since the warden of the Maryland Penitentiary is forbidden by law from announcing the time of execution in advance, defense lawyers feared that Thanos could be executed almost immediately after the Court of Appeals ruled, eliminating a federal challenge.
Thanos, 44, was scheduled to die in the gas chamber between Nov. 1 and Nov. 8 for the murders of Billy Winebrenner, 16, and Melody Pistorio, 14, in a 1990 Baltimore County gas station holdup. Last month, Thanos told a Garrett County judge he wanted no more appeals and fired his public defender, setting up the state's first execution in 32 years.
Usually, after a death row inmate has exhausted his state court appeals, he will file a writ of habeas corpus in U.S. District Court, arguing that the state prosecution violated his constitutional rights.
Gary Bair, the Maryland assistant attorney general handling the case, said earlier in the week that he expected the federal appeal.