John Thanos had envisioned a blazing ending to his malignant life, a death amid a fury of gunfire. Instead, his last day included Catholic priests, two doses of Valium and the steady flow of a lethal intravenous drug.
The three-time killer died docilely at 1:10 a.m. yesterday, the first prisoner executed by the state of Maryland in 33 years. In the end, he was the still center of a burst of action ignited by his coming death.
A lawyer for another death-row inmate struggled late into Monday night trying to stop the execution, first through the federal courts and then with the governor. A knot of death-penalty protesters stood vigil outside the Maryland Penitentiary. The ranks of reporters swelled. And witnesses, summoned from around the state, rushed to Baltimore to watch a man die.
Thanos, 45, lived his last day in a prison cell on the second floor of the Maryland Penitentiary, 40 feet away from the execution chamber. He spent the time smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee, taking naps and watching the television outside his cell. At 9 p.m., in answer to the prisoner's question, Frank Mazzone, the execution commander, acknowledged that death was imminent.
During the day, Thanos was visited repeatedly by three men, a chaplain, the Rev. Charles Canterna; the Rev. Al Rose; and prison psychologist Joseph J. Fuhrmaneck. After Mr. Fuhrmaneck's last visit at 12:27 a.m., Mr. Mazzone and Warden Sewall Smith went to Thanos' cell to ask if he wanted to stop the execution and exercise the appeal rights he had abandoned.
"No," he replied, "I'm ready."
Others were not, not the protesters carrying placards on the sidewalk outside the prison and especially not Jerome Nickerson, a lawyer from Harford County who was desperately trying to save Thanos' life despite his protests.
Mr. Nickerson, who represents another death row inmate named Tyrone Gilliam, spent the last week futilely searching for a court that would stop the Thanos execution. On Monday, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist refused to grant an injunction. Mr. Nickerson then pinned his hopes on U.S. District Court Judge William M. Nickerson (no relation) to hear his arguments against Maryland's new lethal injection statute. Failing to get a response, he convinced Walter E. Black, chief judge of the Maryland District, to hold a 10 p.m. hearing at the Lombard street courthouse.
As Mr. Nickerson approached the courthouse, he got a call on his car phone: The hearing was canceled.
Just then, Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. and his aides arrived at the courthouse. Mr. Nickerson pleaded with Mr. Curran to call Gov. William Donald Schaefer and ask for a 48-hour stay. Mr. Nickerson had made similar requests earlier in the day to Jill Schulze, the governor's legal adviser.
Mr. Schaefer was unmoved. Yesterday, he described his reaction to the entreaty: "Thanos is on his own."
About 10:30 p.m., Ms. Schulze told Ralph Tyler, the deputy attorney general, that the governor had not changed his mind. Mr. Tyler relayed the news to Mr. Nickerson, who, without being told, sensed that Thanos had only hours to live.
"I walked out of federal court at 10:37 and knew what was going to happen," he said. "Maryland had had a tremendous legacy. Thirty-three years of nonviolence out the window."
'He was happy'
It's hard to imagine the word nonviolence in connection to John Thanos. Mistakenly released early from a rape sentence in April 1990, he killed three teen-agers the following Labor Day weekend. In March 1992, he was sentenced to death for the murder of Gregory A. Taylor Jr., an 18-year old welder from Hebron who stopped to pick up the hitchhiking Thanos. He was also sentenced to death for the murders of Billy Winebrenner, 16, and Melody Pistorio, 14, who Thanos killed in a gas station robbery in Middle River.
From the time he was arrested for the teen-agers' murders, he was a taunting, menacing figure. In court, he made obscene gestures to prosecutors, threatened his own lawyers and snarled at his victims' families.
Thanos refused to appeal his death sentences and protested filings by the ACLU and his mother and sister, enabling Maryland to go forward with yesterday's execution.
Under Maryland law, Thanos could have been executed any time during the week beginning midnight Sunday. Thanos himself urged prison officials to hurry up.
Saturday, his mother, Pattie Matney, saw her son for the last time in a visit that lasted more than an hour. They were separated by glass. Ms. Matney said yesterday that her son was sure he wouldn't have to wait long. "He was happy," she said. At peace? "He said he was."
That was Thanos' last day in Supermax, which houses Maryland's most dangerous criminals. Shortly after 3 a.m. Sunday, he was transferred across the street to the hospital area of the Maryland Penitentiary. "He knew it was imminent from the time we moved him," said Mr. Mazzone, who would talk repeatedly with Thanos over the next two days. Instead of the defiant murderer who taunted the families of his victims, Thanos was an anxious, cooperative prisoner.
"The first time I ever talked to him was in the early morning hours of the 15th," Mr. Mazzone said. "I was very businesslike and he was very cooperative.
"His reaction the whole time was one of nervousness," Mr. Mazzone said. "You've always heard of the person walking through the cemetery whistling. He was joking, but I think it was an effort to hide his nervousness."
Over the last two days of Thanos' life, the condemned and the executioner spoke often. One visit, for instance, involved a discussion of the veins in Thanos' arms -- so scarred by drug abuse that they might not have allowed the insertion of the intravenous lines. Instead, prison officials decided to insert the lines into veins in Thanos' thighs.
Through all the visits, Thanos pushed for information about the time of his death. "He asked several times about when and
where. I answered in a roundabout way."
For those two days, two guards sat outside Thanos' prison cell on suicide watch. And twice Monday, at 4:40 p.m. and then again 10:18 p.m., the once-swaggering killer asked for Valium to help relax him.
Without being told, Thanos "knew it was imminent," Mr. Mazzone said. "He didn't know the exact time, but he knew."
The signs were mounting. Mr. Fuhrmaneck, Mr. Mazzone and two Catholic priests checked on him repeatedly. Commissioner of Corrections Richard Lanham paid a visit. Before the evening news shows Monday -- programs dominated by speculation that the execution was approaching -- prison officials removed Thanos' television set.
For dinner, at 9:05 p.m. Monday, Thanos was served knackwurst, peas, cabbage and juice. He declined to eat. "He said he only wanted coffee," Mr. Mazzone said. "He made a comment, 'Tell the press my last meal was coffee.' "
'A go situation'
At midnight Monday, Madison Street was bright with the glare of television lights, which glinted off the rolls of razor wire that top the Madison Street gate to the Pen.
A knot of about 50 people -- a mix of protesters, police officers, reporters, photographers and the curious -- stood across the street. A startlingly cold wind blew past, chilling the spectators and whipping trash high into the air.
Brian Barrett, a 44-year-old house painter from Bolton Hill, had taken up his position outside the prison at 8 p.m., carrying a sign and a candle -- and unaware that he would be standing vigil as Thanos died. Capital punishment, the Catholic man believes, is wrong.
"I was trying to maintain a consciousness of what was taking place in the prison, what other prisoners were thinking and even what Thanos was going through," said Mr. Barrett.
Prison officials were still not confirming that this would be the time.
But already, the witnesses -- six reporters and six volunteers -- were en route from State Police headquarters in Pikesville. Jeffrey B. Cropper, a Worcester County assistant state's attorney who had prosecuted Thanos for the murder of Mr. Taylor, was at his son's T-Ball game in Snow Hill at 7:45 p.m. when his wife arrived to tell him the call had come.
He and his boss, B. Randall Coates, raced across the Eastern Shore to get to Baltimore in time.
The witnesses boarded two vans at 11:56 p.m. At 12:25 a.m., the 12 Marylanders who would watch Thanos die were driven through the Forrest Street gate.
The witnesses, notified by the Department of Corrections, had arrived at the Pikesville barracks by 11 p.m. "This is probably the most solemn and serious act that a government can perform," Mr. Lanham told them. By then, Mr. Lanham, who last week had selected the date and time of the execution, had learned from the Attorney General's office that last-minute appeals had failed. "Last-minute legal efforts did not pan out," he said, "so we are in a go situation."
Dr. Anthony Swetz, a psychologist and an assistant commissioner for the Department of Corrections, gave the witnesses a quick counseling session. "We're going to watch someone die, in a very planned way," he told them. He cautioned that they could suffer post-traumatic stress syndrome. He had them practice deep breathing and neck exercises in case they felt tense.
As a throng gathered at the Pen, the families of Thanos' victims were at home, complaining to other reporters that the families had not been told when Thanos would be killed and had not been allowed to witness the death.
Leonard A. Sipes Jr., spokesman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said that the state was bound by the 1922 law that kept the exact hour of death secret. And the commissioner of corrections, Mr. Sipes said, had decided against inviting the victims' families to watch "out of a sense of concern for their psychological well-being."
Once at the prison, the witnesses were frisked and taken inside to wait in a holding area, two flights of steps below the Execution Chamber. Prison officials provided cookies, fruit, juice and coffee.
'Let's get on with it'
FTC At 12:30, Mr. Mazzone entered Thanos' cell. "Before I had a chance to say anything to him, he said, 'Is it time?' And I said,'Yes.' "
Thanos had been lying on his mattress on the floor of the cell. He arose without help and walked placidly toward the execution chamber. "I let him walk into the room unrestrained," Mr. Mazzone said.
At 12:35 a.m., soon after leaving Thanos, Mr. Fuhrmaneck, the prison psychologist, met the witnesses. "John seems to be at peace," he told them. "He's comfortable. He's relaxed." He said that Father Canterna was with Thanos during his last minutes outside the chamber. "John's very focused on the process right now," Mr. Fuhrmaneck said.
Meanwhile, Thanos, wearing a blue skull cap and a standard-issue orange jumpsuit, was assisted onto the gurney and was strapped down when the curtains opened to allow witnesses, only inches away, a view of the execution chamber.
Larry Roberts, of WBAL Radio, said that Thanos was looking for the two Catholic priests who, at his request, were among the witnesses. "He seemed to attempt to make eye contact with them as soon as the drapes were pulled."
With intravenous tubes running into the back of both thighs, the murderer looked old and pathetic, said Glenn Small, a witness from The Baltimore Sun. "It was the first time I'd ever seen him out of control and helpless."
Mr. Cropper also said he was struck by Thanos' serenity. "He was more subdued and at peace with himself," Mr. Cropper said.
"Adios," Thanos said.
Mr. Mazzone, the only man in the chamber with him, gave Thanos a last chance to stop the execution and initiate appeals. "You can halt this at any time," Mr. Mazzone told him. "Do you want to halt this?"
"Let's get on with it," Thanos said.
After the monstrous crimes, after the courtroom bravado, after the dozens of outrageous jail-house letters to reporters, Thanos was going quietly.
The execution began at 12:58 a.m. The sodium pentothal began flowing at "58 seconds past 1," Mr. Sipes said. The witnesses believe it took about eight minutes for Thanos to die.
His last words, as the drugs began to flow, were, "Here it comes now."
Larry Roberts said he watched Thanos focus on the ceiling. "A minute or two into it, his eyelids started to flutter."
Cree Craig, a witness from WMDT-TV, said he saw Thanos have "three or four swallowing-type convulsions. Three or four minutes later, you could see the color drain from his face."
Sandra Skowron of the Associated Press said the lethal-injection execution "seems so gentle. It is so subtle. John Thanos looked like he was going to sleep."
A doctor pronounced him dead at 1:10 a.m.
Moments later, Mr. Cropper, the prosecutor, slipped into a nearby room and phoned the families of Thanos' victims.
Among them was Lois Dennis, mother of Gregory Taylor, for whose murder Thanos was executed. She said she remained calm throughout the night but was anxious for Thanos' death.
"I concentrated 125 percent on my son," she said yesterday. "I didn't even think about John Thanos." Still her emotions surprised her.
"I didn't anticipate having any emotions at all," she said. "I thought I would just accept [the execution] and go on."
But when she heard the bulletins on television, "my heart was stopping, cold chills were running up and down. When the phone call came in, I accepted the news without emotion. Immediately after hanging up, I went through a crying spree that became uncontrollable."
Less than an hour later, Mr. Sipes faced reporters. "From a technical standpoint," he said, "it went off like clockwork."
A deputy warden called the governor's mansion and spoke to a trooper on duty. Mr. Schaefer, already asleep, didn't learn of the execution until he arose yesterday.
Later, he had no compassion for the dead killer. "This isn't a memorial, you know," Mr. Schaefer said. "This isn't some hero's death. This is the death of a man who had committed an atrocious crime. I didn't look upon it as a day that we're going to lower the flag.
"When I found out he had no mercy," the governor said, "I have no feeling for Thanos at all."
About 4 a.m., John Thanos' body was removed from the Maryland Penitentiary by the state Board of Anatomy. He had donated his body to science.