On Tuesday, April 21st 1992,
39 year old Robert Alton Harris was put to death in the gas
chamber at San Quentin Prison in California’s first execution
for 25 years. He had been sentenced to die for the particularly
brutal killing of two teenage boys in 1978 who’s car he had
hijacked for use in a bank robbery.
The execution had originally been scheduled
for 12.01am, half an hour after the first stay was overturned,
but was then postponed for nearly four hours while courts
considered applications claiming that execution by lethal gas
was cruel and unusual punishment under the 8th Amendment to the
Constitution. On that issue, a federal judge ruled that the
execution had to be filmed to see the extent of Harris's
suffering and a camera was mounted on a tripod outside the gas
The execution was re-scheduled for 4.01am.
Shortly before 3am, he got dressed in new jeans and a blue
prison shirt. He was strapped into one of the two chairs in the
gas chamber and had been waiting for 12 minutes for the
execution to be carried out when an unexpected call came through
saying a US appellate judge had granted a further stay. Some of
the 49 official witnesses, who included "12 reputable citizens"
selected by the warden, spoke of their horror and astonishment
as Harris was unbuckled and led away by guards.
Four stays of execution had been granted and
overturned in nine hours. But the Supreme Court finally issued
an unprecedented order that no further stay would be valid
unless issued by the court itself. Shortly before 6am, Harris
was again led back to the chamber. He was described as looking
resigned to his fate and was fully co-operative with the guards
who led him the 15 paces from his cell. He was strapped into the
metal chair and a stethoscope taped to his chest. The door was
closed and sealed and at 6.05am, he began breathing deeply,
staring ahead and attempting to mouth the words "it's all right"
and "I'm sorry."
At 6.07. a prison official operated the lever,
slowly lowering the pellets of cheesecloth-wrapped sodium
cyanide into the small vat of sulfuric acid beneath the chair to
create the lethal hydrocyanic gas. Harris took a number of deep
breaths and for several minutes appeared to gasp and twitch
convulsively. His head snapped back and then dropped as he
strained against the straps. After a minute his hands seemed to
relax. His mouth was open and his face flushed and turning blue.
Three minutes later there was a cough and a convulsion.
At 6.21 a.m. (eleven minutes after the start)
Warden Daniel Vasquez declared Harris dead. and announced the
words Harris had chosen to be remembered by. Taken from the film
Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, they were: "You can be a
king or a street sweeper. But everybody dances with the grim
reaper." Christina Crystal who witnessed the execution for UPI,
said afterwards: "It wasn't as hard to watch as I thought it
would be the second time around. Harris seemed to lose
consciousness after about one-and-half minutes." She, and other
witnesses, said he looked a very different and more solemn
Robert Harris than two hours earlier. After the execution the
exhaust fan is switched on to remove the hydrocyanic gas and
then the dead body is sprayed with liquid ammonia to neutralize
any remaining gas. The last stage in the process is "Procedure
769" in which staff wearing gas masks and rubber gloves remove
the body having first ruffled the hair to ensure that no gas is
trapped in it.
Robert Harris had a violent and unhappy
childhood that started in the womb. He was born three months
premature after his mother was brutally assaulted by his father
who kicked her in the stomach. Both parents inflicted frequent
beatings on young Robert who suffered a broken jaw at the age of
two after a punch form his father. For sport, his father would
load a gun and tell the children they had 30 minutes to hide
outside the house, after which he would shoot them down like
Eventually Harris senior was jailed for
sexually molesting his daughters, while the mother smoked and
drank herself to death. Robert Harris was twenty five years old
when he shot and killed two San Diego teenagers. Prosecutors
told the jury that Harris taunted the victims before they died,
laughed at them after he pulled the trigger, then calmly ate the
hamburgers they had bought for lunch.
Executions Out of the Ordinary: Robert Alton
In 1979 Harris was sentenced to death for the
murder of two teenage boys whose car he had stolen. He was
executed on 21 April 1992 in the gas chamber at San Quentin
State Prison in California, the state's first execution for 25
Harris's last words, quoting a Keanu Reeves
film, were: "You can be a king or a street sweeper, but everyone
dances with the grim reaper." A federal judge ordered the
execution to be filmed so as to decide whether the gas chamber
was a "cruel and unusual punishment". The tapes were later
A Tale of Two Criminals: The Primal Roots of
By David Chamberlain, PhD.
David Edwin Mason and Robert Alton Harris
spent their final years on Death Row before they were gassed by
the state of California in 1991 and 1993 for heinous crimes of
violcnce. Their brographies expose the primal roots of violence.
The dossier on Mason reveals him to have been
a sad and lonely child whose mother tried to induce a
miscarriage to avoid having him in the first place - and who
never was allowed to forget that he was unwanted. Older sisters
describe a household where hugging or laughter were prohibited,
and in which young David was beaten almost daily with his
father's belt or, in the hands of his mother, "a switch or
When only five, the child attempted suicide
by swallowing a bottle of pills and set his clothing on fire. At
eight he was taking out his hostility by setting fires at church
or at school. The parents took to locking him away in a room
they called "the dungeon" - a bedroom with the windows nailed
shut. Persistent bedwetting, and worse, were countered by
parading David with the soiled clothes wrapped around his head.
At age 23, Mason went on a nine-month killing spree in the
neighborhood where he had grown up, strangling four elderly men
and women. He later confessed that it was "something I have
always wanted to do."
Robert's beginnings were striklngly similar.
He was born three months premature after his mother was kicked
so brutally in the abdomen by an angry husband, that she began
hemorrhaging. As in the Mason family, both parents inflicted
frequent beatings - the father with his fists, causing a broken
jaw when Robert was not yet two. Sitting at the table, if Robert
reached out for something without his father's permission, he
would end up with a fork in the back of his hand.
For sport, father would load his gun and tell
the children they had 30 minutes to hide outside the house,
after which he would hunt them like animals. threatening to
shoot anyone he found. Like Mason, young Harris soon began
showing anger toward animals and people. The senior Harris was
jailed for sexually molesting his daughters, while the mother
smoked and drank herself to death.
Harris was twenty five years old when he shot
two San Diego teenagers to death. Prosecutors told the jury that
Harris taunted the victims before they died, laughed at them
after he pulled the trigger, then calmly ate the hamburgers they
had bought for lunch. Pain and rejection were the foundation
stones on which these angry young men tried to build their lives.
Violence was a legacy from their parents.
In an editorial on the occasion of Mason's
execution, former U.S. Congressman Lionel Van Deerlin of San
Diego concluded: "Such persons must be put away, of course. But
can society feel comfortable when providing the final touch to a
pattern of violence which may literally have begun in the
mother's womb?" Congressman Van Deerlin shows rare nsight in
connecting events widely separated in time: womb violence and
criminal violence. As a society we have naively viewed the
earliest period of human development as a "free period" when
rules are suspended and there are no consequences for torturous
mental and emotional events. This is wishful thinking.
The latest research on fetal and neonatal
behavior indicates that all babies are keenly aware of their
environment, are fully able to feel pain, and are constantly
learning from their experiences. These scientific findings
support what the biographies of Mason and Harris reveal so well:
violence during pregnancy and birth is the seedbed of a violent
Vulnerability to hostility during the primal
period continues through a range of flashpoints including
discovery of pregnancy, chronic warfare between parents,
physical and psychic attacks on the fetus, the multiple traumas
ot premature birth, the routine traumas of medical birth
including heel lancing for blood samples, needle injections of
vitamin K, rough handling in a too cold, too bright environment,
and finally, more often than not, exile and isolation from
mother and father. Crown these insults and injuries with
rejection after birth and you have the formula for personal
misery, smoldering resentments, and social explosions.
What can parents do about violence in society?
Briefly, they can turn things in a different direction at all
the chronological flashpoints: Start with a planned conception,
get help to resolve interpersonal problems at the earliest
possible time, send lots of loving messages to the baby in the
womb, organize for health and fitness to support full-term
gestation in utero, and arrange for a non-vioient, natural birth
in a context of reassuring touch, where mother's milk is always
available and family solidarity is unbroken.
"Vicims of a devastating trauma may never be
the same (again) biologically. It does not matter if it was the
incessant terror of combat, torture, repeated abuse in childhood,
or a one-time experience."
[Psychiatrist Dennis Charney, National Center
for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Yale University]
By Jaap van Hoewijk & Rikkert
Boonstra, The Netherlands, 35mm, 80’
After a nerve-wracking last minute stay
Robert Alton Harris finally walked to his execution in San
Quentin on April 21st, 1992 for the murder of two boys he
committed back in 1978. For the State of California this was the
first execution in 25 years and for 14 years the Harris-case was
a top news story on radio and television across the United
States. Procedure 769 (which is the administrative name for the
death penalty) makes a major contribution to the topical
discussion on death penalty by focusing on the people who are
witnesses to an execution.
The film features a number of people who were
present at the time. Among them San Quentin’s former warden who
supervised the execution, the father, mother and a sister of one
of the slain boys, a journalist, official witnesses such as the
current sheriff of San Diego, a brother and a far cousin (a
Minister from Alabama) of Harris. All of these people had mixed
and often very contradictory feelings about watching Harris’
execution. Throughout the film, we are made aware of the vital
role the media played in the case.
The making of Procedure 769 - On April 21st
1992 Jaap van Hoewijk hears on the radio of the execution in
California of someone by the name of Harris. It would be the
first execution in the state in 25 years. He hears that the
condemned man has been executed in the presence of about 50
witnesses... 50 people were present at the execution. 50 people
stood or sat and watched. Who are they and why are they there?
Van Hoewijk's curiosity is aroused and he decides to investigate.
A few days later he finds out through newspaper reports that the
witnesses came from widely different backgrounds. At that moment
he realized that this could be a wonderful point of departure
for a film: a group of people all watching the same event, but
all seeing something different.
But it is not easy to find these witnesses.
No one in the US is willing or able to help track these people
down. Quite coincidentally, an organisation opposed to
executions sends a fax from van Hoewijk on to the Death Penalty
Information Center in Washington DC. Michael Kroll, director of
this centre, responded. He happened to attend the execution as a
friend of Harris, but he refuses to cooperate with the film.
The memory of that horrific night when Harris
was killed is too painful. After many months and many letters,
Kroll is finally willing to cooperate and help with the project.
He puts the filmmaker in touch with Randall and Leon Harris,
respectively the brother and cousin of Robert Harris. Randall
Harris has never previously wanted to talk to a reporter.
Slowly but surely, van Hoewijk comes into
contact with the other witnesses and to his amazement, almost
all the witnesses he finds agree to take part. San Quentin State
Prison director Daniel Vasquez however refuses to speak to the
filmmaker. However when the crew is already shooting the film,
Vasquez calls van Hoewijk by phone. He has a different job now
and wants to talk.
"Hoewijk has made one of the best films on
the subject ... gripping all the way ... aa real eye-opener!" -
By Joshua Green -
The Washington Monthly
* * * * *
In 1978, Robert Alton Harris, a 26-year-old
paroled murderer, kidnapped two California teenagers in the
parking lot of a fast-food restaurant. He drove to a remote
canyon where he killed the two boys, then finished the
hamburgers they'd been eating and drove off. Harris was later
caught robbing a bank. He confessed to the murders and was
sentenced to death in 1979. Yet he managed to delay his
execution for 13 years by repeatedly manipulating the appeals
Harris and his lawyers challenged the quality
of his psychiatric evaluation, claimed California's gas chamber
was unconstitutional, and argued that the death penalty
discriminated against younger killers, males, and those who
killed whites. Each of these claims stalled his execution. In a
flurry of last-minute appeals, the Supreme Court overturned four
separate stays on the night of Harris' execution before it took
the unprecedented step of forbidding lower courts to issue
further stays. By the time he was finally put to death in 1992,
Harris had managed to get more than 20 appeals.
Righting a Lopsided Argument
Magazine - Letters to Editor
I feel compelled to register the significant
level of concern I felt over Michael Laurence's essay, "Death Be
Not Proud" (summer 1997). There is an obligation to balance his
one-sided assessment of the death penalty and what can be
construed as the magazine's implicit endorsement of these views.
I, too, come from a Jewish family, from a
family whose ranks were decimated by an evil regime bent on
extinguishing an entire people from the earth. Reading Mr.
Laurence's veiled attempt to link the self-imposed consequences
of cold-blooded killers to the plight of the slaughtered and
innocent victims of the Holocaust was deeply troubling. This
shameful ploy is an insult to the victims by associating their
names with the scum Mr. Laurence has every right in the world to
defend. Additionally, I do not see any similarity between the
hateful Nazi regime and the United States government that helped
end their attempt at world domination.
Throughout Mr. Laurence's piece we are
offered his insight into the "distortions of the legal system,"
interpretations of capital punishment as "killing," and the
long, agonizing journey that leads to the execution of Mr.
Laurence's client, Robert Harris. Apart from perfunctory
references to a horrific crime, we are left with the impression
that Mr. Harris is as much a victim as anyone. Mr. Laurence is
loyal to his client by presenting all the typical excuses for
his criminal behavior, but fails to detail that behavior. What
would I like to do here is something that is rarely, if ever,
done in typically lopsided anti-capital punishment arguments:
represent the victims.
In 1978 Robert Alton Harris abducted two
teenagers from a San Diego fast food restaurant and shot them
down for absolutely no reason. Through his own admission, he
taunted them before they died, laughed after shooting each of
them in the head, and calmly sat down beside the bodies and
finished the lunch he had stolen from the victims before ending
Whether Robert Harris had a terrible
upbringing or not, did too many drugs, hung out with the wrong
crowd, was messed up on Twinkies, or whether other excuses were
offered is, I feel, irrelevant. He snuffed out two young, vital
lives that no excuse in the world can restore. Why should
extenuating circumstances be argued in cold-blooded cases of
murder such as this? Does any extenuating circumstance make
these two boys less dead? Charles Manson, too, had a pretty
rough upbringing. Does that somehow negate the carnage he
inspired? What happened to the concept of responsibility for
one's actions? Even the term "not guilty by reason of insanity"
is legalistic insult to a murder victim. What about guilty by
reason of insanity?
Mr. Laurence should also be cautious of
overstepping his professional capabilities and personal
experiences by claiming to speak for the families of his
client's victims. "Capital punishment is not a panacea for the
loss of a loved one," he asserts, and "it is a lie" that
execution will offer closure. He is, unfortunately, unqualified
to speak for these people and, moreover, clearly uninformed.
The families of the two young boys all
requested to be present at Robert Harris's execution "to see
justice done after fourteen years." Linda Herring Baker, whose
brother was slain by Harris, expressed the following after
witnessing the execution: "He didn't want to give us the
satisfaction of watching him die in pain, so he just sat there
and died. He struggled a bit, but not enough for me
unfortunately: I would have liked to see him struggle more for
what he did."
Another point to which I must object is the
assertion that the death penalty is not a deterrent. Make no
mistake that it certainly is a deterrent. Robert Alton Harris
will never again cut short the life of another young person or
ruin the remaining years of countless family and friends. We are
all safer with this type of person off the planet. I have never
bought the argument that the death penalty should be measured by
its ability to deter others from committing similar crimes. (How
could that truly be measured, anyway?) People still run red
lights even though our society penalizes such behavior. Does
this mean fines do not work and they should be abolished?
Further, to assert that life in prison is an
acceptable alternative to capital punishment challenges reality.
We would all like to take comfort in the naive belief that once
a convicted murder goes off to prison he is subject to a harsh
daily routine on the rock pile, making little ones out of big
However, the term "life in prison" is either
wishful thinking, a sadly apt description, or simply an
additional mockery toward a murder victim's family and the
departed's memory. Thanks to the advent of minimum security,
work release, parole hearing for "lifers," commutations, and "good
behavior" credits and the like, "life in prison" is all but a
hollow and impotent threat to the many who eventually walk free
from their life sentences.
I could certainly go on here, but I will not.
There are many more points that I object to in Mr. Laurence's
article. However, my objective is not to "gang up" on him. His
motives seem pure and his work honest. But there are people out
there with much less virtuous intent who are a blight on society
for the fear, destruction, and devastation they wrought on
people's lives. They abrogate their rights of protection by a
society whose very protection they threaten. The stilled voices
of their victims must never be forgotten in our zeal to apply
fairness where fairness does not exist.
Martin E. Levenson '81, Danvers,
Famous Last Words: Robert
Alton Harris: "You can be a king or a street sweeper, but
everyone dances with the Grim Reaper." (Robert Alton Harris, put
to death in California's gas chamber on April 21, 1992, for the
slayings of two teenagers)
Federation of Humane Society
Robert Alton Harris murdered
two 16 year old boys, doused a neighbour with lighter fluid and
tossed matches at him. His initial run-in with police was for
killing neighbourhood cats.
People v. Harris, 171
Cal.Rptr. 679 (Cal. 1981) (Direct Appeal).
Defendant Robert Alton Harris
appeals from a judgment imposing the death penalty following his
conviction of kidnaping, robbery and first degree murder of John
Mayeski and Michael Baker. Defendant was also convicted of
receiving stolen property and of possession of a concealable
firearm by an ex-felon. We affirm the judgment.
In May or June of 1978
defendant first asked his brother Daniel for help in a planned
bank robbery. On 2 July 1978, Daniel stole a .22 rifle and a .9
millimeter pistol from the home of Jim Corbin, a neighbor. While
Daniel and defendant were in the house, apparently in Corbin's
absence, defendant stated they needed weapons for the bank
robbery and asked whether there were any in the house. Daniel
then showed defendant the guns and took them from the house.
The brothers left Visalia for San Diego that
evening. The next morning, 3 July 1978, they purchased
ammunition, went to a nearby rural area and practiced firing the
weapons by shooting at trees while running and rolling a drill
they considered appropriate in preparing for the bank robbery.
The following morning, 4 July 1978, defendant
and his brother purchased more ammunition as well as knit caps,
in which they burned eye holes, to serve as masks in the bank
robbery. That afternoon they went to the Miramar Lake area, near
Mira Mesa, for more shooting practice.
The next morning, 5 July 1978, having decided
to steal an automobile for use as a getaway car, the brothers
spotted a green Ford in a grocery store parking lot directly
across Mira Mesa Boulevard from the bank. John Mayeski, 15, and
Michael Baker, 16, were in the car eating hamburgers. Assuring
Daniel "nobody is going to get hurt," defendant walked over to
the Ford, pulled the pistol from his waistband, and got in the
back seat. With Daniel following in defendant's car, the Ford
was then driven out Mira Mesa Boulevard toward Miramar Lake and
the fire trail where the brothers had been the day before.
At the foot of the fire trail defendant and
Daniel parked the cars and forced the two boys to walk up the
trail at gunpoint. Defendant was carrying the pistol and Daniel
the rifle. Defendant told the boys their car was going to be
used in a bank robbery but that no one would be hurt. Defendant
asked the boys whether there was any rope in their car. The boys
replied there was not but said they would walk to the top of the
hill, wait until the brothers drove back to Mira Mesa, and then
report the Ford as stolen, giving the police a misleading
description of the thieves. Defendant voiced approval of this
The boys then began walking up the hill.
Suddenly, Daniel heard a shot. Turning around, he saw John
Mayeski fall to the ground. Defendant had shot the boy in the
back with the pistol. Defendant fired another shot into the
boy's head, then ran after Michael Baker. Finding the Baker boy
crouching and screaming in the brush, defendant shot him four
times. Defendant then went back to the fallen Mayeski boy and
fired a shot point-blank into his head.
Finally, defendant picked up the rifle
dropped by Daniel and shot John Mayeski yet again. The brothers
then left the murder scene and drove back to the house defendant
shared in Mira Mesa. There defendant ate the remainder of the
dead boys' food and laughed at Daniel for not having the stomach
to join him.
While the brothers continued preparing for
the bank robbery, defendant laughed and giggled about shooting
the boys, saying he had blown Michael Baker's arm off. Defendant
also amused himself by imagining what it would be like to be a
police officer and to report the boys' deaths to their families.
When Daniel noted there were fragments of flesh on defendant's
pistol, apparently from the point-blank shot fired into John
Mayeski's head, defendant laughed, commented he had really blown
the boy's brains out, and then flicked the bits of flesh into
Later the same day the brothers robbed the
bank. They were quickly arrested for the bank robbery when a
witness, who followed them from the bank to defendant's house,
called the police. The brothers were arrested at 1:05 p. m. on 5
July 1978. At 4 p. m., Daniel first informed officers of the
murders; at 6:30 p. m., Daniel confessed in a tape-recorded
statement, placing the blame primarily on defendant. At 7 p. m.,
having listened to portions of Daniel's statement, defendant
himself confessed to Officer Fred Dreis.
At midnight, the brothers were interviewed by
Dr. Wait Griswold, a psychiatrist. On 7 July 1978, at 11:20 a.
m., defendant repeated his confession in detail to Johnny Bolden,
a criminal investigator for the San Diego County District
Attorney's office. Finally, at 1 p. m. on 7 July 1978 an hour
before he was arraigned defendant confessed to Officer Ronald
When one of defendant's sisters visited him
in jail on 15 July 1978, he told her, "Now, I guess because I
killed those two boys, they were only 16 years old, then robbed
the bank and kidnaped them was because I really wanted to die."
Defendant's last extrajudicial confession was made to a fellow
inmate. Asked why he had killed the boys, defendant answered, "I
couldn't have no punks running around that could do that (identify
him), so I wasted them."
Testifying in his own behalf at the guilt
phase, defendant admitted the bank robbery but denied kidnaping,
robbing and murdering the two boys. He explained his pretrial
confessions as attempts to protect his brother.Daniel testified
for the People in return for being permitted to plead guilty to
one count of kidnaping. His testimony was corroborated by a
series of extrajudicial statements made by defendant.
In 1975 defendant pleaded
guilty to voluntary manslaughter of James Wheeler. Wheeler and
his wife lived with defendant's brother Ken and his wife;
defendant and his wife lived next door. At the scene, defendant
admitted beating Wheeler to death but claimed he had done so to
protect the victim's wife when her husband threatened her with a
knife. Later, just as in the present case, defendant repudiated
his confession and sought to shift the blame to his brother,
claiming Ken had killed Wheeler and that he had confessed to
protect Ken. This is the story defendant told when testifying in
the present proceeding.
However, defendant's former wife and his
niece testified defendant, without provocation, beat Wheeler to
death while mockingly claiming to teach his victim self defense.
During this sadistic attack defendant also cut off Wheeler's
hair and threw matches at him after squirting him with lighter
fluid. Defendant's former wife admitted she lied to the grand
jury investigating Wheeler's death explaining defendant had
threatened to kill her too if she did not support his story.