Harris Again Challenges Competency of Medical Help : Crime: Death Row murderer wants a federal appeals court panel to review an earlier court rejection.


Renewing a claim that was rejected last month by a three-judge federal appellate panel, convicted murderer Robert Alton Harris said in legal papers filed Wednesday that he deserves a hearing to show that he was denied competent psychiatric help at his trial 11 years ago.

Harris said an 11-judge board of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals should review the 2-1 decision the three-judge 9th Circuit panel issued Aug. 30 that rejected his claim and denied his death penalty appeal.

That divided ruling by the San Francisco-based court reopened the way for California's first execution in 23 years.

Harris, 37, convicted and sentenced to death for the 1978 murders of two San Diego teen-agers, had been scheduled to die April 3 in San Quentin's gas chamber--but his execution was blocked to allow the 9th Circuit court to consider the case.

Its Aug. 30 decision reopened legal maneuvering that is expected to lead to the U.S. Supreme Court, which has already turned Harris down on four previous appeals.

Harris murdered John Mayeski and Michael Baker, both 16, in July, 1978, after kidnapping the two boys and stealing their car for use in a bank robbery.

In the Aug. 30 ruling, the 9th Circuit panel said Harris received adequate access to the services of two licensed psychiatrists at his trial.

To require judges to evaluate the competence of that service would plunge the courts into a "psycho-legal quagmire," Judge Melvin Brunetti said. Judge Arthur Alarcon concurred.

Harris' lawyers, led by Charles Sevilla of San Diego, contend in the legal papers that had he received competent psychiatric help, the doctors would have discovered a series of related mental disorders that drove him to act by impulse, rather than premeditation, when he shot the two teens.

"Fundamental fairness" alone requires a hearing, Sevilla said.

Sevilla also pointed out that another three-judge 9th Circuit panel issued an opinion Sept. 7--in an unrelated case--that said competent psychiatric help is a "basic tool" that must be provided to the defense.

And, in the lone dissent to the Aug. 30 ruling, Judge John T. Noonan said that mere access to an incompetent expert does not equal that "basic tool," according to Sevilla.

State prosecutors also filed a legal brief Wednesday with the 9th Circuit court, explaining why, according to Deputy Atty. Gen. Louis Hanoian, Harris does not deserve a hearing.

Hanoian, however, said late Wednesday that copies of prosecutors' papers were not available.

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