Reiterating a series of last-minute claims, Robert Alton Harris’ lawyers said Monday the condemned killer is entitled to a new sentencing hearing because of “newly discovered” mental disorders.
Urging the California Supreme Court to halt Harris’ scheduled April 3 execution, Harris’ San Diego attorneys also stressed that it would be cruel and unusual punishment to kill him after he had spent 11 years on Death Row.
In their final scheduled legal brief to the court, defense attorneys also expanded on other claims they first raised in January, including a contention that it would be unfair to kill Harris because he had changed for the better in prison.
Harris, 37, convicted of the 1978 murders of two teen-age San Diego boys, is in line to be the first person executed in California in 23 years. His case has progressed farther through the court system than any of the more than 270 prisoners on Death Row.
In January, the U.S. Supreme Court flatly turned down a broad challenge to Harris’ death sentence, the fourth time it has rejected a Harris appeal. The California Supreme Court upheld Harris’ death sentence in 1981.
Shortly before the U.S. Supreme Court rejection, Harris’ San Diego attorneys, Charles M. Sevilla and Michael McCabe, filed a new appeal with the California Supreme Court. The state Supreme Court has given no indication whether it will agree to hear that appeal.
The state attorney general’s office urged the California Supreme Court last month to reject Harris’ latest appeal as nothing more than a collection of old and recycled claims.
The papers the defense lawyers filed Monday, including a 63-page legal brief and affidavits from doctors, raised no additional claims and only highlighted points that state prosecutors said are stale.
But, responding Monday to the prosecutors’ claims, Harris’ defense lawyers said Harris was only doing what the law entitled him to do--pursue every legal procedure available to him. All Harris wants is to be treated fairly, defense attorneys said.
The defense attorneys claimed in their papers, for example, that only recently was it discovered that Harris suffers from various mental disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition usually associated with war combat.
Harris didn’t know when he was sentenced to death that he suffered from the disorders for two reasons, his lawyers said.
The psychologists who tested him didn’t do a good job, they said. And, in 1979, when Harris was sentenced, psychiatrists didn’t even recognize a condition like post-traumatic stress disorder.
Since evidence of Harris’ “true mental disorders and brain damage” wasn’t presented in 1979 but would provide “powerful mitigating evidence,” Harris deserves a full battery of neurological tests and a new sentencing hearing, the defense lawyers said.
In last month’s filing, prosecutors were especially scornful of Harris’ claim that it would be cruel to kill him after 11 years of waiting to die, saying that Harris orchestrated the delay by pursuing appeal after appeal.
Sevilla and McCabe said Monday that contention was “as meritless as it is mean-spirited.” Though Harris has indeed asked over the years for his execution to be put off while he appealed, a court had to grant that request each time, so any delay was attributable to judges, the lawyers said.
“If a death sentence cannot be carried out within a reasonable time, it should be modified to life without parole,” the attorneys said. “Eleven years is far too long.”
Prosecutors also were remarkably blunt in dismissing Harris’ claim that it would be cruel to kill him because he had changed for the better, calling that contention a “final act of desperation.”