Harris' Death in Gas Chamber Set for April 21


Murderer Robert Alton Harris, convicted of the 1978 killings of two teen-age San Diego boys, was ordered by a judge Friday to die April 21 in the gas chamber at San Quentin, setting the stage for California's first execution in 25 years.

Rejecting a bid by Harris' defense lawyers to postpone the execution date to May 5, Superior Court Judge Frederic L. Link settled on the earlier date, which prison authorities and prosecutors preferred.

After 13 years of appeals, the time for more delay had passed, Link said, earning applause in the courtroom from a relative of one of the two teen-agers killed by Harris. "It is important to write the last chapter in this book and to do it as soon as possible," Link said.

That sense of urgency dominated events Thursday in the San Diego courtroom and elsewhere around California at hastily arranged rallies and news conferences called to praise or damn the death penalty--all of it fueled by a growing belief that Harris, who has survived four execution dates, will actually meet his death April 21.

"Now it appears that justice will finally be served," Atty. Gen. Daniel E. Lungren said Friday in a statement issued in Sacramento.

"No one should rejoice in the taking of any human life," Lungren said. "But we live in a society of laws where convicted criminals must face the consequences of their crimes."

In recent weeks, the courts have made it plain that they have grown weary of Harris' repeated appeals. He was rejected last week by both the U.S. Supreme Court and the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, the federal appellate court that serves California. And Harris' defense lawyers have conceded that they are running out of novel claims for leniency.

The defense promised Friday to keep fighting, saying it will plead with the courts for mercy and ask Gov. Pete Wilson for clemency. A Wilson spokesman said Thursday that procedures for a clemency hearing have not been made final.

Harris' lawyers conceded Friday that the odds of keeping Harris alive have grown long. "We are up against the gun," defense attorney Michael McCabe said. "More people are getting impatient, I suppose. But the peril (to Harris) is no greater. We're always Indiana Jones hanging on at the end of the vine."

At news conferences in Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego, death penalty opponents said Friday that they held out little hope that Harris will be spared. But they called capital punishment cruel, unfair and ineffective.

"It's a very giant step backward," said Ramona Ripston, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Los Angeles.

"Robert Harris committed crimes that are horrible beyond words," said Steve Karp, spokesman for the San Diego-based Committee Against the Death Penalty. "But should we as a society stoop to the level of this despicable murderer and become killers ourselves?"

Harris, 39, was convicted of the killings of John Mayeski and Michael Baker, two 16-year-old friends, slaying them after stealing their car for use in a bank robbery.

He abducted the youths from a Mira Mesa Jack in the Box where they were eating lunch. Later, he ridiculed his brother and accomplice, Daniel Harris, for not having the stomach to finish the two teen-agers' lunches.

In 1979, Harris was sentenced to death. He is one of 325 men on Death Row at San Quentin.

For nearly a decade, Harris has been the focus of a legal battle between state prosecutors and the federal courts.

His case became a legal rarity in 1982. That year, the California Supreme Court affirmed his death sentence, one of only four upheld by the court under then-Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird.

For the next eight years, the case bounced back and forth between the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, and the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1990, when Harris was only days away from an April 3 date at the gas chamber, a 9th Circuit justice, John T. Noonan, called off the execution.

Noonan said then that the courts needed more time to look at Harris' claim that he suffered from mental problems that had not been adequately presented at the 1979 trial. That, defense lawyers said, deprived Harris of a fair trial.

The defense contends that Harris suffered brain damage, fetal alcohol syndrome and other mental defects preventing him from forming the mental state to commit premeditated murder, a legal requirement for a verdict of death. Last August, a 9th Circuit panel of three judges, on a 2-1 vote, rejected that claim. Noonan dissented.

A few months later, the full appeals court split, 13-13, on whether Harris deserved a further hearing on that appeal. Under court rules, a tie vote meant Harris lost.

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court turned Harris down, too. Without comment, it declined to review his claim.

Within hours of that ruling, Harris' defense lawyers tried again, filing a new appeal with the 9th Circuit court, contending there was "startling new evidence" showing that Harris' first mental exams were bungled.

This time, in what may have been a signal that the 9th Circuit has seen enough of the Harris case, the court turned him down flat in just four days. It said the new appeal was "untimely" and sent the case back to Link for the issuance of the death warrant.

"Justice will not be served until the execution happens," said John Mayeski's cousin, Kenneth J. Condon, 47, of Apple Valley, outside the courtroom. Condon, who applauded Link in the courtroom and who wore a T-shirt proclaiming, "Proud to Be an American," said, "At that time we'll see justice."

The Harris Case

Key developments in the lengthy legal case of Robert Alton Harris, ordered Friday to die April 21 in the San Quentin gas chamber:

July 5, 1978: Harris, on parole for a voluntary manslaughter conviction, is arrested as a suspect in the murders of two San Diego 16-year-olds, Michael Baker and John Mayeski. Baker's father is one of the officers who capture Harris.

Jan. 24, 1979: Harris is convicted of premeditated murder, robbery, kidnaping for the purpose of robbery and receiving stolen property. His brother Daniel, who with Harris had used the teen-agers' car in a bank robbery, was a key prosecution witness.

March 6, 1979: Harris is sentenced to die by Superior Court Judge Eli H. Levenson, pending appeals.

Feb. 11, 1981: California Supreme Court denies an automatic death penalty appeal by Harris, who contended that the San Diego jury was prejudiced by pretrial publicity.

April 15, 1981: Execution date of July 7, 1981, is set.

June 22, 1981: The July 7 execution is stayed by the California Supreme Court pending Harris' appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Oct. 5, 1981: U.S. Supreme Court affirms the death sentence.

Oct. 19, 1981: New execution date of Dec. 15, 1981, is set.

Dec. 9, 1981: California Supreme Court grants another stay of execution to provide time for the court to rule on Harris' petition for a new trial.

Jan. 13, 1982: California Supreme Court refuses to overturn Harris' conviction.

Jan. 26, 1982: Execution date of March 16, 1982, is set.

March 12, 1982: U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals grants a stay of execution to review Harris' case based on his argument that the state's death penalty law is unconstitutional because it discriminates against men.

Sept. 16, 1982: The 9th Circuit Court orders a far-ranging review of the state death penalty law to see if it is being administered fairly. Decision has the effect of indefinitely blocking any executions.

Jan. 23, 1984: U.S. Supreme Court reverses the 9th Circuit decision that had blocked imposition of the death penalty in California.

Oct. 17, 1984: U.S. District Judge William B. Enright, based in San Diego, denies a new Harris appeal of his death penalty. Enright's ruling is appealed, and is affirmed in 1990.

Feb. 5, 1990: Harris gets his fourth execution date: April 3, 1990.

March 27, 1990: Harris' lawyers file a new appeal in federal district court in San Diego, alleging that defense psychiatrists did not competently analyze his mental state.

March 30, 1990: U.S. 9th Circuit Judge John T. Noonan grants a stay of execution so Harris can have time to prove his claim of incompetent psychiatric help during his trial.

April 2, 1990: On a 6-3 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court refuses to alter Noonan's stay of execution.

Aug. 29, 1990: By a 2-1 vote, a panel of the 9th Circuit upholds Harris' death sentence and rejects the argument that Harris should be given a new hearing on the competence of his trial psychiatrists.

Nov. 8, 1991: 9th Circuit judges vote 13 to 13 on whether to take up Harris' case again. Under court rules, a tie vote is a loss for Harris. His lawyers turn again to the U.S. Supreme Court.

March 2, 1992: U.S. Supreme Court turns down Harris' appeal.

March 13, 1992: Judge Fredric L. Link in San Diego orders Harris executed on April 21, 1992.

Compiled by Times editorial researcher Michael Meyers

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