State prosecutors Friday rejected as a “fanciful fabrication” new defense claims that authorities enticed a former cellmate to lie when he testified against condemned killer Robert Alton Harris in his 1979 trial.
Lawyers for the state attorney general’s office urged the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to refuse a key bid by Harris to avoid becoming the first to die in the gas chamber in California since 1967.
The state lawyers said the defense claims came too late in the 12-year-old San Diego case--and that new statements by a jailhouse informant charging that he was coached to commit perjury at the trial contained “bald-faced lies.”
Even if the new charges were true, the attorneys said, they should be disregarded in view of the “overwhelming” evidence that Harris deliberately killed his two teen-age victims.
“Nothing in these declarations (by the cellmate), even at this late date, suggests (Harris) did not commit the murders,” the state said in a 28-page brief signed by Deputy Attys. Gen. Jay M. Bloom and Louis R. Hanoian.
Defense lawyers are seeking a retrial for Harris in the 1978 murders of John Mayeski and Michael Baker, both 16. If he loses in his latest round of appeals, he could be executed in the gas chamber next year.
Last week, Harris’ attorneys asked the appeals court to order a federal district judge to hold a fact-finding hearing on their claims that authorities improperly recruited a cellmate to obtain incriminating statements from Harris while he was awaiting trial for the killings.
The informant, Joey Dee Abshire, testified at the trial that Harris told him he killed the boys to prevent them from identifying him in a robbery. That testimony was supported by a sergeant with the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, who said he overheard Harris make the admissions to Abshire. Such evidence was important in showing that the killings were premeditated--not impulsive--making Harris eligible for first-degree murder and the death penalty.
In an affidavit dated Nov. 7, Abshire claimed authorities persuaded him to question Harris, provided him with details of the case, coached him on how to testify and then told him to lie about his role as a police agent. Abshire stood by his previous testimony that Harris said he killed to avoid identification--but he disputed the deputy’s testimony that Harris called the youths “punks” he had to “waste.”
State prosecutors said a new hearing should be denied “for a myriad of reasons.” They said the new statements by Abshire and another former cellmate, Sonny Arthur Wisdom, lacked credibility coming 12 years after the events at issue. Abshire’s statements recanting his trial testimony were also “convenient,” in view of the fact that it is too late now to charge him with perjury, the lawyers noted. The state said there was considerable evidence to show that officials did not recruit Abshire and coach him.