Robert Alton Harris, convicted in 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 prison, setting the stage for California's first execution in 25 years.
Rejecting a bid by Harris' defense lawyers to postpone the execution 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 from one of the victims' relatives who attended the hearing. "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 in the San Diego courtroom and elsewhere 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 previous execution dates, will die April 21.
"Now it appears that justice will finally be served," Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren said 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."
Harris' fate began to look more certain last week when new appeals were rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court and the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, the federal appellate court that serves California.
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 that procedures for a possible clemency hearing have not been finalized.
Harris' lawyers conceded 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."
Prison officials say it is likely that the execution will occur in the San Quentin gas chamber early on April 21. Authorities want it to take place well before dawn so the large number of protesters and the curious expected to gather at the prison will not interfere with the commute in Marin County, where the prison is located.
"Justice will not be served until the execution happens," said Kenneth J. Condon, 47, a cousin of one of Harris' victims. Condon, who applauded Link in the courtroom, wore a T-shirt proclaiming, "Proud to be an American."
At news conferences in Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego, death penalty opponents said 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 murdering two 16-year-old best friends, John Mayeski and Michael Baker. He abducted the youths July 5, 1978, from a Jack-in-the-Box in Mira Mesa, where they were eating lunch, and killed them after stealing their car for use in a bank robbery.
In 1979, Harris was sentenced to death. He is one of 325 men and two women awaiting execution in California prisons.
For more than a decade, the conviction and sentence have been on appeal and for much of that time Harris has been the focus of a legal battle between state prosecutors and the federal courts.
In 1982, 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 the gas chamber, a 9th Circuit justice, John T. Noonan, called off the execution.
Noonan said the courts needed more time to look at Harris' claim that he suffered from mental problems that were inadequately explored at his 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 that prevented him from forming the mental state to commit premeditated murder, a legal requirement for the death penalty.
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 to 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, the high court declined to review his claim.
Harris' defense lawyers tried a new appeal to the 9th Circuit Court, contending that there is startling new evidence showing that Harris' first mental exams were bungled.
This time, in what may have been a signal that the 9th Circuit Court has seen enough of the Harris case, the court turned him down in four days. It said the new appeal was untimely and sent the case back to Link for issuance of the execution date.
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