Ex-Death Row Inmate Has No Pity for Harris


Robert Page Anderson, murderer, seven-year Death Row resident, survivor of three execution dates, legal celebrity whose case spared the lives of Charles Manson, Sirhan Sirhan and more than a hundred others, holds no pity for Robert Alton Harris.

More than a decade apart, Anderson and Harris committed murder in San Diego. Both men were sentenced to die. In 1972, Anderson was made famous, briefly, when the appeal of his death sentence overturned every death sentence in California. Today, Harris is being made famous as the first person in line to be executed in California in 23 years.

Though Anderson lived, he thinks Harris should die.

"That was wrong, what he did," Anderson said in an interview with The Times in his $80-a-month Seattle apartment.

"He was way out of line. He could have let those kids go. So I have no pity or compassion for somebody like that. I can't in good conscience be in his corner. I can't. And, if those kids' parents sit there in the front row and clap when he dies, I still couldn't sympathize with Robert Harris.

"I don't want him to live. I want him to die because he killed children."

The words burst out at a fast clip from the 53-year-old Anderson, his hair faded white and his cheeks encased in a full gray beard. The beliefs seem harsh and contradictory, coming from a man who once stood five days from an execution date.

Yet for opponents of capital punishment, Robert Page Anderson today represents a living testimonial that there is some good worth saving in every man.

Released from prison in 1976, Anderson has adjusted to life outside without the use of his hands, which were crippled in his shoot-out with San Diego police 25 years ago. He has tutored preschool children at day-care centers and served as a counselor for juvenile delinquents.

Anderson has become a law-and-order advocate who favors gun control and supports capital punishment for those who kill children and teen-agers, which is why he believes Harris, who killed two San Diego high school boys in 1978, should be executed. Anderson believes capital punishment was wrong for him because he says he killed a man on the spur of the moment.

In 1972, the state Supreme Court chose Anderson's case to review the death penalty and then abolished that statute as cruel and unusual punishment. The Times wrote then that Anderson's "name, like those of Gideon and Miranda, now belongs to history."

Four years later, he was released from prison. Two years after that, he successfully completed his parole. And he slipped out of the state, moved to the Pacific Northwest, began a new life, tried to forget his past failures, hoped his name would never again be heard by the people of California.

"I'm at peace now," he said. "God believes you can rehabilitate yourself, and that's what I'm all about.

"I remember the preacher on Death Row said that some crimes you have to pay for, but I kept saying I wanted to go home. I told the state that, if they would let me out, I'd never commit a crime again. I told them, 'Just open up the prison door and kick me out.' "

He was born in San Diego, an only child raised by a grandmother after he was abandoned by his parents. In his youth he took up a habit of smoking marijuana, grew cocky and, although puny in stature--only 5 feet, 5 inches tall and barely over 100 pounds, roughly the size he is today--he was difficult to handle. He was nicknamed "Rabbit," because he was fast, and because he always got away.

At 14, he first went to court for slicing another boy's throat in the school gym. He hit another kid with a shovel in reform school. He left school in the 11th grade, for construction jobs and washing windows.

On April 8, 1965, he shot and killed the credit manager of a San Diego pawn shop, then held police at bay for four hours in a barrage of gunfire. At the time, it was the biggest police shoot-out in San Diego history. A police sergeant finally confronted Anderson inside the building and shot him three times at close range with a pump-action shotgun.

Although seriously wounded, he lived to stand trial, was convicted and sent to San Quentin to die in the gas chamber.

"I was expecting it," he said of the death sentence. "It's like you've seen the movie before and you know the ending. I mean, even a blind man would have found me guilty.

"There was no illusion, except I thought they were going to take me up there and kill me right away, and that there would never be this seven years on Death Row."

Placed inside Cell No. 18 on Death Row, out of the sunshine, his complexion paled and, before long, Anderson, known as No. A-91287, was forgotten among his condemned brothers, many of whom he befriended and some whose names are legend.

Charles Manson. "Whenever we saw him laugh, we all laughed, saying 'Who's this tough guy?' " Anderson said. "He didn't look so tough to us."

Sirhan Sirhan. "He was a likable guy, but he wasn't considered a political prisoner. I never heard any bad raps about him."

And Aaron Mitchell, the last man legally put to death in California, who in 1967 went to the gas chamber with slashed wrists and screaming that he was Jesus Christ. "He was a wreck at the end, and he cut himself. But I understood. I didn't like what he did. I wish he could have been stronger. But I still respected him."

Anderson was determined not to go the way of Aaron Mitchell, even when his first execution date in October 1966 came within just five days of being carried out.

"It was close to Halloween, and I had quit smoking, and I didn't have the cigarettes to fall back on," he said. "But I made up my mind that, if they were going to kill me, I was not going to go in there crying and sniveling."

He began to read voraciously, especially devouring George Orwell's "Animal Farm" and Homer's "Odyssey," an ancient Greek epic poem about heroic wanderings to faraway lands.

"I'd want to get on one of those ships and get away," he said. "I'd want to sail to the end of the world."

His uncle, William Darnell, sent him $10 or $15 a month and Anderson bought law books. He used his cigarette money to buy more books. He wrote some of his own court petitions, signing them with a crude X because his disfigured hands could not easily grasp a pencil.

Anderson returned a year later to a San Diego jail when the courts granted him a new penalty phase in his trial because his original jurors were picked only from among proponents of the death penalty. The new hearing brought no relief, and he was again sentenced to die. Three times he had execution dates, and three times courts stayed his execution.

He returned to San Quentin and, by the early 1970s, the U.S. Supreme Court was signaling that it was ready to order the states to abolish their death statutes. Without waiting for federal court action, the state Supreme Court stepped into the controversy and, on the urging of American Civil Liberties Union attorneys, docketed the Anderson case for consideration.

The subsequent state court ruling, issued in February, 1972, struck down capital punishment by calling it "cruel and unusual punishment."

"We are fully aware that many condemned prisoners have committed crimes of the utmost cruelty and depravity, and that such persons are not entitled to the slightest sympathy from society," the court said.

"Nevertheless, it is incompatible with the dignity of an enlightened society to attempt to justify the taking of life for purposes of vengeance."

Anderson remembered the news of that day.

"We heard it on the radio," he said. "Then, all of a sudden it got quiet in there. Then somebody started yelling, and there was more screaming, and it got quiet again."

Anderson also remembered that he agreed then with the court's ruling about the harshness of capital punishment, particularly how the long years under a death sentence changed him into a man far different from the one who killed seven years earlier.

"It really was cruel and unusual," he said. "It really was. You isolate a man up there and take him through all those mental changes just to kill him.

"Now, if you're going to take him one day later and execute him, that's cool. But this went on forever for me, and you change. Like a butterfly, you metamorphose."

Soon, Death Row inmates, Anderson among them, were assimilated into the general prison population. "The first week we all got sun tans," he said. "We sat out there in the prison yard and looked up and said, 'Sun, eat me up! Eat me all up!' "

In August, 1976, after 11 years behind bars, he was paroled. Dropped off at the prison gate, with three boxes of books and several hundred dollars in cash, he caught a ride to San Francisco. "I got off the bus and just walked around like a tourist, looking at all the tall buildings," he said. "Then I got tired, and sat right down."

There are plenty of people, especially in San Diego, who believe to this day that Anderson unfairly eluded the gas chamber. Among them is Allen Brown, the San Diego police officer who shot Anderson 25 years ago.

"He took another man's life," Brown said of Anderson. "He tried to take mine."

In 1976, Anderson moved to Seattle to rebuild his life outside the public spotlight.

He earned an associate degree from the Seattle Central Community College. He worked as a teacher-trainee at day-care centers in Seattle, reading to preschool children and escorting them on picnics in the park.

"He'd read stories sitting right there in the circle with them," said Serrena Rock, director of the Love's Nest Day Care Center. "He laughed out loud when they did funny things, and the children, especially the little boys, really liked old Robert."

Rock said she was aware Anderson had been in trouble, but never knew the gravity of his offense at the time. Even so, she said, she has no regrets about hiring him because he did a good job.

He counseled teen-agers at the Seattle juvenile hall to abandon their drug habits. Don Crews, who was Anderson's supervisor, marveled at how Anderson spoke out about the harshness of a death sentence and showed young offenders how every life can be worth saving.

"I think he's done a very, very good job of working his way back into society," Crews said. "I really think he has made some tremendous strides. He's accepted the fact that what he's done wasn't right."

His Seattle parole officer, Orrie Hewitt, wrote a 1983 reference letter for Anderson describing him as "an honest and trustworthy person. It is my opinion that he is of excellent character."

Anderson eventually lost both jobs. New regulations precluded ex-convicts from working with children in day-care centers. And juvenile hall staff members worried that Anderson could not protect himself with his impaired hands and arms against uncontrollable teen-agers.

Turned out and unemployed, today he lives on a little over $450 a month in Social Security payments. He has never married, and, except for his uncle and a small group of friends, has no visitors in his tiny, two-room apartment. Unable to work at manual labor because of his useless hands, he has become a television addict, a throwback from his long days in prison with nothing better to do.

He said he doesn't smoke or drink. He said his worst blunders in post-prison life have been two minor traffic tickets. His views on many issues seem as conventional as the average American citizen. He abhors crime and supports capital punishment for the killing of children or teen-agers.

Initially, Anderson rejected requests from The Times for an interview. At one point he agreed to an interview, but only if The Times would buy him a new car. The newspaper turned that down, but Anderson eventually granted the interview anyway.

For seven hours in his tiny apartment in a poor neighborhood last Sunday, he relived the murder, his years on Death Row and his joy at finally leaving prison. He paced about the room, his eyes widening as he waved a steel curtain rod through the air, pretending it was the rifle he used to kill the pawn shop manager and shoot at police.

"I'm generally right here," he said, gesturing around the room. "I read books, look at the television, play chess by myself. I'm not into any clubs or groups. I'm a loner.

"Whenever you see me, I'm going to be myself. I like the quiet. I like the peace. The phone won't ring. It will be quiet in here all day after you leave. And all night too. And tomorrow."

HISTORIC SHOOT-OUT--Robert Page Anderson held off San Diego police in a gun battlethat came to be known as the biggest police shoot-out of its time. B1

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