The Legacy of an Execution

The nation took note this week of the 1,000th execution since the U.S. Supreme Court permitted the resumption of the death penalty in 1976. One death penalty case from 15 years ago serves as an example of how executions affect families and communities on both sides of a given case.

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The death penalty hit a milestone this week. The 1,000th person was executed since capital punishment was restored in 1976. We asked NPR's Laura Sullivan to go back 15 years, to one execution, to see how it had affected the lives of the people closest to it. Now a caution. Some of the material in this report may be inappropriate for younger listeners.

LAURA SULLIVAN reporting:

The crime was one of the worst in Maryland's history. A man in his 40s goes on a four-day killing spree, murdering three teen-agers for apparently no reason. Two of his victims were Melody Pistorio and Billy Winebrenner. They were high school sweethearts.

Ms. DONNA DILLON (Melody Pistorio's Mother): The saddest thing, when I came home after finding out about her murder was her schoolbooks were there.

SULLIVAN: Donna Dillon is Melody's mother. Melody was 14, Billy, 16, when they were shot in the head at a gas station in Baltimore on the last day of summer.

Ms. DILLON: She had all of her papers and her schoolbooks and everything written--you know, ready to go to school. And she had `I love Billy' on her notebooks.

SULLIVAN: Just a few hours' drive from the gas station, out on the Maryland shore, another teen-ager, 18-year-old Greg Taylor, was also dead, left in the woods by a logging road. His parents had been searching for him for almost five days. On the fifth day, the Maryland police called Lois Burton(ph) and her husband to police headquarters.

Ms. LOIS BURTON (Greg Taylor's Mother): They sat us in this little teeny, tiny room and they told us that they had some good news and they had some bad news, that Greg was found but that he was dead. That's how they said it.

SULLIVAN: Greg Taylor had been shot in the head three times after he picked up a hitchhiker. His hitchhiker, and murderer, was John Thanos. There's never been any doubt that John Thanos killed Melody Pistorio, Billy Winebrenner and Greg Taylor, and he wasn't sorry about it, either. At one point in his trial, he told the judge he would like to have the teens exhumed so he could shoot them again. Melody's mother, Donna Dillon.

Ms. DILLON: I went through a period of anger, mostly during the trial and the fact that he was so unremorseful. I think that I might not have been as angry if he was a--if he would have expressed some remorse, but he was just so cold.

SULLIVAN: In 1992, Thanos was found guilty and sentenced to death. A year later, he fired his lawyers and declined all appeals. It was then that the court appointed two Baltimore lawyers, Denise Barrett and Larry Nathans, to represent Thanos and his family.

Mr. LARRY NATHANS: Here we had someone with an incredible history of mental illness, and one of the most difficult lives I've ever seen, you know, in my 20-some years as a lawyer.

SULLIVAN: Larry Nathans says for a death penalty defense lawyer, the Thanos case could not have been worse.

Mr. NATHANS: You know, there was ample evidence that Mr. Thanos was guilty, there was ample evidence that he was a dangerous person. You know, I understood the position that, you know, no one wanted Mr. Thanos running around, harming people. That made sense to me.

SULLIVAN: But he didn't want the state to kill him, either. Larry Nathans wanted the courts to see that there were a lot of reasons Thanos probably turned out the way he did. In his Baltimore office, Nathans flips through old yellow files for the first time in a decade.

Mr. NATHANS: Here's the first one from Dr. Zeeman(ph).

SULLIVAN: There are hospital records from when a young John Thanos was taken to the emergency room after his father apparently tortured him twice.

Mr. NATHANS: He was often seen with lacerations and bruises all over him.

SULLIVAN: Records of when he watched his sister being raped; medical records from when Thanos was gang-raped in an adult prison when he was 15; More than a dozen suicide attempts in 20 years.

Mr. NATHANS: In 1974, he tried to swallow a razor blade; 1986, he was found hanging in his jail cell; 1990, he tried to get the police to shoot him when he was arrested.

SULLIVAN: Larry Nathans asked six psychiatrists to review Thanos' medical records. They all diagnosed him the same: mentally unstable and schizophrenic. Nathans and his colleagues argued Thanos should be sentenced to life without parole. The courts did not agree. Thanos' execution was scheduled for May 17th, 1994, four years after he killed Melody, Greg and Billy. It was Maryland's first execution in 33 years.

Mr. FRANK MAZONI(ph) (Thanos' Executioner): I had to more or less start from scratch.

SULLIVAN: Frank Mazoni was second in charge of Maryland Corrections at the time. That made him Thanos' executioner. But all he had to work with was a gas chamber that hadn't been turned on in three decades, and nobody could find the manual.

Mr. MAZONI: Well, the gas chamber was there. There were no procedures, so I had to do a lot of research, and develop the procedures and test the equipment and practice, practice, practice.

SULLIVAN: Thanos ended up choosing lethal injection. At 1:10 in the morning, he was dead. Melody's mother, Donna Dillon, remembers the moment she heard.

Ms. DILLON: I was relieved because I knew that he wasn't going to be out on the streets, you know, going after other innocent kids. And I knew that he wasn't going to hurt anyone again.

SULLIVAN: John Thanos' mother declined to comment for this story. She said it is too painful to talk about what happened. Sitting in a park outside her office, Greg's mother, Lois Burton, says her son's death still haunts her.

Ms. BURTON: Jesus, God, it is hard to let your child just--you know, you feel like you failed them out there. I think part of me just wishes that I could have been there for him. You know, you keep thinking that thing where you can feel the pain that your kids are going through, that you can feel it and hear, and that day that it happened, I didn't feel it. And it's aggravating because, you know, you really felt that you should have been there. I blamed myself for years.

SULLIVAN: Today, Thanos' attorney, Larry Nathans, keeps a picture propped up against the window in his office.

Mr. NATHANS: It's a photograph of a sign that was in somebody's yard I think in Harford County, and it says: Execute John Thanos and disbar his lawyers. It reminds me of a time that I put a tremendous amount of effort into a case and. You know, I think we did the right thing, and I think we attempted to show a picture that no one wanted to see.

SULLIVAN: Donna Dillon and Lois Burton are still glad John Thanos is dead. Both are grateful for the death penalty. But some days Lois Burton says there's a small part of her that wants to talk to Thanos.

Ms. BURTON: I would want to know what Greg said, step by step. Did he ever ask--say anything about me? Did he say my name? Did he just say anything? 'Cause those things bother me. Those are things that for the rest of my life, because he's gone--I'm blessed, but because he's gone, I still wonder about certain things.

SULLIVAN: Burton says the hardest part after all these years is that few people remember the names of the victims. But most people here still remember the name of the murderer. Laura Sullivan, NPR News.

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