Last Man Executed in California : Furor Over Mitchell Case Resounds 18 Years Later

Times Staff Writer

The last man to die in San Quentin’s gas chamber was Aaron Mitchell, executed 18 years ago for the murder of a Sacramento police officer. And his haunting death and gruesome last hours, some contend, are among the reasons no one has been executed in California since.

Several hours before Mitchell was scheduled to leave Death Row for a holding cell adjacent to the gas chamber, he was escorted onto the tier by a guard and allowed to walk around. Mitchell, whose execution was planned for the following day, walked halfway down the tier and suddenly began slashing his forearm with a jagged piece of metal he had torn from a pair of earphones.

“Mitchell had a wild look in his eyes and began shouting: ‘I am the second coming of Jesus! I am the son of God!’ ” recalled Earnest Aikens, another prisoner on Death Row at the time. Then the guards dragged Mitchell back to his cell where a prison doctor staunched the flow of blood and bandaged his arm.


The night before his execution he stood naked in the small holding cell, said the Rev. Byron Eshelman, the prison chaplain at the time. He picked at the cuts on his forearm, smeared drops of blood on his palms, stood in the crucifix position and chanted: “This is the blood of Jesus Christ. . . . I am going to save the world.”

Mitchell ranted throughout the night until he was dragged out of the cell in the morning and, moaning loudly and assisted by four guards, walked barefoot on a strip of carpet toward the pale green octagonal gas chamber only eight feet away. After he was strapped into the perforated metal chair, guard Joe Ferretti patted him on the knee and told him: “Take a good whiff Mitch, and it won’t be so bad.” But Mitchell was oblivious to Ferretti and shouted his final words: “I am Jesus Christ!”

Then the metal doors clanged shut, a guard twisted a spoked wheel to ensure an airtight seal and the 58 witnesses behind the guard rail watched through five large windows as Mitchell writhed and twitched. He was pronounced dead 12 minutes later.

Found Fit for Execution

Prison psychiatrists had examined Mitchell the morning of his execution and determined that he was putting on an act in an attempt to delay his death; they declared him sane and fit for execution. But the men on the Row were convinced that the strain of the impending trip to the “smokehouse” caused Mitchell to snap, said Aikens, now a prisoner at the California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo. If Mitchell was acting, Aikens said, “he deserved an Academy Award.”

Some legal scholars contend that it is no coincidence that Mitchell’s execution was the last in the state. The disturbing events surrounding his final days and the wide publicity given to the case contributed to the cessation of executions in California, said Michael Meltsner, author of “Cruel and Unusual; the Supreme Court and Capital Punishment.”

Less than three months after Mitchell died a federal judge issued a stay of all executions in California. Five years later the state Supreme Court struck down the death penalty, ruling that it was “cruel or unusual punishment.” Although capital punishment has since been reinstated in California, no inmate’s appeal process has gone far enough to warrant an execution.

“The Mitchell execution was a grisly affair and Ronald Reagan (who was governor at the time) claimed there would be more of them,” said Meltsner, former dean of the Northeastern University Law School. “It influenced public opinion and jolted volunteer lawyers groups and civil liberties organizations into action.”


Almost two decades after the execution, those who were affected by Mitchell’s life or death are profoundly changed. His lawyers. His executioners. His family. His victim’s family.

And the furor over the death penalty in California has not abated. But the controversy now is centered, not on the odious nature of an execution, but on the absence of executions.

When Mitchell was executed, after four years on Death Row, foes of capital punishment said he was the victim of a capricious justice system--a black man with an eighth-grade education who was represented by an overmatched public defender. At the time of his death, 62 men waited on Death Row. Why, his defenders asked, was Mitchell chosen to die while other murderers--including other cop killers--were spared?

“Mitchell was just plain unlucky,” said George T. Davis, a San Francisco attorney who has represented more than 250 death penalty defendants. “He ran out of appeals at the wrong time.”

Reagan and Edwin Meese III, who was the governor’s clemency secretary and is now U.S attorney general, spoke in favor of Mitchell’s execution at the time. They emphasized the need for dramatic retribution, the fact that Mitchell had killed a policeman and the suffering experienced by the victim’s family. Arnold Gamble, the slain police officer, had left a wife and two teen-age children.

Criticism of Reagan

During Mitchell’s final days, Reagan was the object of considerable criticism. He refused to attend Mitchell’s clemency hearing two days before the execution but turned up that night at the Academy Awards ceremony. The three governors before Reagan had attended and even presided at some of the clemency hearings, but Reagan maintained he was not qualified because he was not a lawyer. Mitchell’s lawyers contended that Reagan wanted to disassociate himself from the execution for political reasons.


The day before the execution, Mitchell, 37, was visited by his mother, son and former common-law wife. He asked his mother, Virgie, to deliver a handwritten appeal to a federal judge. But he was extremely pessimistic, Virgie Mitchell recalled:

“He told me: ‘Mama, if I could live my life all over again, I’d know how to live it. But it’s too late now.’ Then he told me he wanted to sing a song for me, because I’d never be able to hear him sing again,” she said.

Then, in the small visiting room, Mitchell sang, in a clear, slightly high-pitched voice, his favorite spiritual: “Just a Closer Walk With Thee.”

On his walk back to the cell block, Mitchell broke down. He never regained his equanimity, said Lawrence Wilson, the San Quentin warden at the time. He cried and shouted and had to be restrained the entire way.

Waited Til Last Moment

Mitchell was scheduled to be executed at 10 a.m. the following morning, April 12, 1967. But Wilson waited an extra four minutes to make sure there was no last-minute reprieve. Then he turned around, pointed at the sergeant standing next to the chamber and nodded his head. The sergeant slowly pushed a lever attached to the chamber, submerging two cheesecloth bags of cyanide pellets into a vat of sulfuric acid. The bags settled into the vat and a vapor of lethal gas began rising to the floor of the chamber and up through the perforated metal seat.

When the gas started to rise Mitchell dropped his head and his arms went limp, recalled Howard Brodie, a television graphic artist who sketched the execution. Then Mitchell suddenly straightened up and faced the window Brodie was looking through.


“His chest heaved and his mouth moved constantly. His head was tilted slightly to the side and he had a kind of a wide-eyed, blank stare . . . I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” Brodie said.

“Then all of a sudden his fingers gripped his thumbs and he lifted his head high, eyes rolling upward, lips quivering. Then it seemed like his features just melted. His chest heaved. He fell forward again and his head dropped for the final time.

“I’ve covered four wars and witnessed the execution of three enemy soldiers during the Battle of the Bulge. But I’ve never seen anything more dehumanizing.”

‘Jarring Experience’

The responsibility for overseeing and giving the ultimate approval for an execution was the most “jarring experience” of Warden Wilson’s life, Wilson said later.

Largely as a result of the Mitchell execution, Wilson now opposes capital punishment. Wilson has seen too many cases, he said, where the “economic, social or political standing” of the defendant determines whether he is sentenced to death. And the way death penalty cases are handled varies so much from “state to state and county to county,” he said, it never can be administered fairly.

“The Mitchell execution brought it all home for me,” said Wilson, who now is retired. “My cook at San Quentin killed four men and was given life. The guy who did my yardwork killed a policeman and got out of prison eventually. A guy like Dan White kills two people in cold blood, but he’s back on the streets in a few years.”


A man’s life, Wilson said, should not be determined by his bank account or his timing.

In the bedroom of her small Sacramento house, the walls covered with religious artifacts, pictures of her son and hand-crafted items he made in prison, Virgie Mitchell fanned herself and in a sing-song voice said her son was destined to die as a young man.

“When we were living in Mississippi and Aaron was just about 8 years old, a drifter wandered by the house and asked me for some water,” she said with a far-off look in her eyes. “I fed him a meal and when he was done he told me Aaron had the mark on him--he was going to die behind prison walls. If I kept the boy in church and Sunday school and he was able to change, the man told me Aaron had a chance. But if he took the wrong road, he would not leave prison alive.”

Old black wanderers who offered prophecies for meals were common in rural Mississippi in the 1930s, Virgie Mitchell said, and many were ignored. But she never forgot the man who talked about her son. And nine years later Mitchell, who grew up in Mississippi and Tennessee, embarked on the road that eventually fulfilled the drifter’s prophecy.

Moved to Chicago

When Mitchell was 17, his parents separated and he moved to Chicago to live with his brother. Mitchell was homesick, but did not have the money for a bus ticket back to Memphis. He stole a car, was caught en route home and spent 15 months in a reformatory, Virgie Mitchell said.

After his release, he returned to Memphis, stole another car and was sentenced to three years on a county chain gang.

“After that chain gang time, he never could get straightened out,” Virgie Mitchell said. “God knows I didn’t bring him up to steal, but he learned some bad ways on that chain gang, and I couldn’t tell him much after that.”


Shortly after Mitchell completed his sentence, he was convicted of assault during a robbery attempt and was sent to state prison. After his release, he joined his mother in Sacramento and found a job as a pants presser at a cleaners.

Mitchell was living with a woman with two children, had two children of his own from previous relationships, was chronically short of funds and claimed he could not pay his bills with his salary at the cleaners. He was charged for the holdup of a laundry, and while he was out on bail, he committed his final crime.

‘Just a Plain Thief’

“He was just a plain thief,” said the Rev. Samuel Callier, the family pastor who gave the eulogy at Mitchell’s funeral. “Everything was stealing, his whole criminal life was theft. But he was no killer; he’d never been involved in anything like that. He just got caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

On Feb. 15, 1963, Mitchell spent the afternoon drinking vodka, then stopped by several of his Sacramento hangouts and attempted to borrow money. He was unsuccessful. That evening he entered the Stadium Club restaurant, and as he began to herd employees into a walk-in refrigerator, fired a sawed-off shotgun into the ceiling and shouted: “That’s just to let you know it’s loaded. Get moving.” But the restaurant manager slipped away from the kitchen and called the police.

Mitchell checked the office safe, which was empty, and then grabbed $321.85 from the cash register. He headed toward the front door, spotted a policeman through a window, ran to the rear of the restaurant and saw another policeman, Ronald Shaw, in the kitchen. Mitchell had the draw on Shaw. He grabbed the officer’s revolver and, armed with the shotgun and the revolver, told him to march toward the front door.

Shaw, who was a rookie at the time, testified that as they walked out the front door and confronted the other officers, Mitchell shot first. Mitchell stated later that the moment he stepped outside and spotted the officers he said: “ ‘You got me . . .’ ” then “it sounded like the Fourth of July. Just everything broke loose.”


Shot Seven Times

Mitchell was shot seven times and barely survived. Shaw was shot in the thigh by one of the officers. And Officer Arnold Gamble died from a bullet fired from Shaw’s revolver.

Shaw witnessed Mitchell’s execution in order to “give a sense of finality” to the incident. But 22 years later, he still is plagued by memories of the shooting.

“The death penalty makes it easier on the victims,” said Shaw, now a lieutenant. “You can never entirely forget, but at least you know it’s over and done with; you know the criminal can never be back on the streets. Everything has to have a beginning, middle and end.”

At 2 a.m., the morning after the shooting, two men from the coroner’s department woke up Leona Gamble and informed her that her husband had been shot to death.

“It hit everyone so hard because it was such a sudden shock,” said Bob Bender, a former Sacramento policeman who was a friend of the slain officer. “Two guys with suits show up in the middle of the night and bang on the door. It came out of nowhere.”

The memories are so painful, Leona Gamble said, that she does not like to talk about her husband and refuses all requests for interviews.


Arnold Gamble Jr. consented to a brief interview in which he expressed his views on capital punishment, but refused to elaborate about his family. He said opponents of capital punishment have no concept of how the families of the victims suffer.

“Have they ever lost anybody?” asked Gamble, who was 14 when his father was killed. “Have they ever known how painful it is? It’s changed all of our lives and 22 years later we’re still changed. It’s always amazed me how so many people don’t understand the victims.

“The victims are the ones who are left. They can never get away from it.”

Second Marriage

Leona Gamble was married briefly to Bender after her first husband died. But that marriage failed, Bender said, because the horror of her first husband’s death never left her. She never was able to forget.

Once a year, on her dead husband’s birthday, Leona Gamble brought a bottle of champagne and a glass to the cemetery. She sipped champagne by his grave, Bender said, and repeated the special toasts they had once made together. And every weekend, Leona holed up in a remote mountain cabin where she and Gamble once spent vacations.

Leona and her children found it so difficult to adjust after Gamble’s death because he had been such a strong figure in the family, Bender said. Gamble, who died at 42 and was a Police Department veteran of almost 20 years, was a big, intimidating-looking cop who made all the decisions in the family and brooked no back talk from his children. When he was gone, no one was prepared to assume his role.

“Arnold’s death really broke Leona up; I’ve never seen a woman take it worse and suffer for so long,” Bender said.


“He wasn’t your Dirty Harry type,” said Bender’s wife, Barbara, who knew Gamble when she worked in the department’s prints division. “He wasn’t one of those colorful guys who are always getting into shoot-outs. He wasn’t a carouser. He was an average guy, a conservative family man who did his work and went home.”

Mitchell’s clemency hearing two days before the execution was a wrenching experience, said Dorothy Brin Walker, one of several court-appointed attorneys who handled Mitchell’s appeals. Another of Mitchell’s lawyers told Meese, who presided over the hearing, that Reagan’s absence meant “it’s a sham hearing.” When Meese told him that “Gov. Reagan is carefully and personally” involved in the case, the lawyer stormed out of the chamber in protest, and Mitchell’s mother jumped from her chair and screamed: “Lord, Lord . . . Why can’t you give us a chance like the rest. . . . Why, Jesus, why?” She ran sobbing from the room.

But the emotional atmosphere at the hearing did not sway Meese. In a recent telephone interview from Washington, Meese said he saw no reason for the government to “exercise the unusual power to overturn a jury’s decision and in particular the appellate court’s decision.”

Dorothy von Beroldingen, now a San Francisco Municipal Court judge, represented Mitchell for several years while he was on Death Row. She contends that Mitchell would be alive today if he could have afforded an attorney after his arrest. Von Beroldingen said that at the time, public defenders did not have the support and funding that they now have and were not able to explore all the defense possibilities.

More witnesses should have been interviewed, Von Beroldingen said, and extensive ballistics tests should have been taken. The defense should have emphasized that Gamble’s killing was not premeditated, she said, because it could have helped sway the jury in the penalty phase of the trial.

“A lot of issues weren’t explored sufficiently,” Von Beroldingen said. “His defense could have done more.


“The whole thing is still like a nightmare to me. Knowing your client is going to die and knowing you’re helpless to do anything about it. . . . It’s an awful feeling.”

After Mitchell was executed, Von Beroldingen kept her vow to herself to never again defend another criminal case.

Next: Death penalty opponents take their case to the U.S. Supreme Court.