The campaign to spare Robert Alton Harris took to the airwaves Monday, as the murderer's defense team beamed to television stations across the state a video of child abuse experts asking Gov. Pete Wilson to show mercy.
The 22-minute video was delivered to the governor's office last week as part of an effort to persuade Wilson to halt Harris' execution, which is scheduled for 12:01 a.m. April 21.
On Monday, with the attempt to save Harris taking on some trappings of a political campaign, the American Civil Liberties Union broadcast the video via satellite in the form of a news release to television stations, mostly in California, and also distributed it to reporters.
On the tape, narrated by actor Mike Farrell of the television show "MASH," leading experts on fetal alcohol syndrome and child abuse speak in a format that suggests that they are being interviewed or giving an informal talk. Farrell notes that Harris would spend his life in prison if he is granted clemency.
A UC San Diego medical professor, a UCLA psychiatrist, and a University of Washington psychologist say that Harris suffers from brain damage because his mother drank alcohol while she was pregnant with Harris. They also say Harris has emotional scars and brain damage from beatings he received when he was an infant.
Former California Supreme Court Justice Frank Newman appears on the tape and, for the first time, publicly suggests that he was wrong in casting a deciding fourth vote in 1981 to uphold Harris' death sentence. Newman urges Wilson to consider mercy, saying that the jury that called for Harris' execution never knew the severity of his mental problems.
The defense hopes the emphasis on Harris' hellish upbringing will play especially strong with Wilson because the governor has made prenatal care and health care for young children cornerstones of his Administration.
In a report detailing his first year in office, Wilson cited his efforts to combat drug and alcohol abuse among pregnant women, and mental health programs aimed at early detection and treatment of psychological problems in children.
Franz Wisner, a spokesman for the governor, would not say whether Wilson will view the video before the April 15 clemency hearing, noting only that "it's there for him to look at."
On the video, Dr. Kenneth Lyons Jones, a UC San Diego medical school professor who first identified fetal alcohol syndrome in 1973, displays a picture of a smiling 8-year-old Harris, and describes facial features that indicate Harris has the condition. Jones says people who have the syndrome "do not understand what is right and what is wrong."
Dr. Spencer Eth, a psychiatrist at UCLA, says that Harris suffers from "borderline mental retardation," and that the trauma from abuse inflicted on him is similar to what is felt by "a terrorist hostage."
Several family members have confirmed that Harris was beaten. His mother, Evelyn Harris, testified at his trial in 1979 that her husband singled out Harris because he thought Harris was conceived in an extramarital affair.
Evelyn Harris, who served a prison term for a bank robbery committed when she was drunk, testified that she was an alcoholic, but was vague on the amount that she drank when she was pregnant with Harris, the fifth of her nine children. She and her husband, Kenneth, are now dead.