In the life history of Robert Alton Harris, two facts stand out: The murders that put him on Death Row were heartless, and he seemed destined to die strapped down in an execution chamber somewhere.
That life began at an Army hospital in Ft. Bragg, N. C., on Jan. 15, 1953, the day a drunken soldier named Kenneth Harris kicked his alcoholic wife in the gut, sending her into labor two months early.
Sgt. Kenneth Harris had won a Silver Star and Purple Heart in World War II. Some said he suffered from shellshock. His wife Evelyn, one of 11 children from a poor Cherokee family in Oklahoma, took her first drink by age 8. As a teen-ager, she was picking cotton to pay for her booze. At 52, she recalled that when her mother hit the whiskey, she would get “wild and vicious. I guess just like me.”
Robert was the fifth of their nine children, and the slowest. He spoke with a lisp and sat by himself talking to imaginary friends and fantasizing about visits from mystical Indians and flying saucers.
Convinced that Robert was conceived in an affair, Sgt. Harris reserved special abuse for him. When “Robbie” was 1 1/2 years old, Harris pummeled him with a bamboo cane. Later, the father would load his gun and tell Robbie to run.
After Harris was discharged in October, 1962, the family arrived in the San Joaquin Valley $2,500 in debt, with eight kids to feed and a ninth on the way. They settled at a farm labor camp outside Visalia.
By Christmastime, the Harrises had their first run-in with the law in California. The eldest daughter, Barbara, was arrested for theft. In the safety of Juvenile Hall, she began revealing the sexual things her father would do to the girls.
The month that Robert turned 10, his father was deemed a sex offender and sent to Atascadero State Hospital for a year and a half. Robert also had his first contact with police--for killing cats, although he maintained that he only watched as others did the deeds.
In December, 1964, the elder Harris got drunk and became unusually abusive. Robert’s mother called for police. They arrived to find the father with his pants down, involved in a sex act with one of Robert’s sisters.
With his father again in prison, Robert and his family took up the migrant’s life, following the crops up and down the valley. Along the way, Robert had run-ins with police--glue-sniffing in Modesto at 12, four months in Juvenile Hall in Santa Rosa for stealing a car at 13.
In May, 1967, Evelyn Harris and six of her children moved into a small apartment in Sacramento, living on welfare. She soon found a solution to her problems with Robert. One day she and her latest man, and the four youngest kids, drove off and left Robert, 14, to fend for himself.
He made his way to Oklahoma, where sister Barbara and brother Randy lived. Barbara enrolled him in the eighth grade but, after a day, the school kicked him out. In 1968, after his brother tried to stop him from sniffing glue, Robert ran off, stole a car, and was arrested in Florida. A probation officer’s report noted that his parents’ whereabouts were unknown.
“Knowledge of their whereabouts would not materially change his situation, since they appear to be the cause of his delinquency and would offer nothing in the way of stable planning,” the report said.
Robert Harris spent the next four years as a ward of federal reformatories. Counselors reported that he slashed his wrists in suicide attempts. Schizophrenia was diagnosed. “Gloomy,” counselors said of his prospects. He would spend the rest of his days behind bars, they predicted.
When Harris turned 19, authorities could no longer hold him. They gave him $50 pocket money and a bus ticket to Chula Vista, where his father lived. He found work as a welder, married and fathered a son.
By 1975, his rehabilitation was over. He was unemployed, drinking heavily and living on welfare. One drunken night in an Imperial County trailer court, he and his oldest brother, Kenneth, decided to give a neighbor, James Wheeler, a lesson in how to fight.
Robert Harris did not stop with his fists. He sprayed lighter fluid on his victim, flicked matches at him, and sheared his hair. Wheeler died. Harris pleaded guilty to manslaughter and served 2 1/2 years in the state prison at San Luis Obispo.
In 1978, at age 25, Harris was released again, despite warnings from the Imperial County Sheriff’s Department to parole authorities that Harris was “in need of psychiatric attention.”
Over Independence Day weekend, he drove from San Diego to Visalia for a Harris family picnic. His mother had recently been put on parole for bank robbery.
“The minute I saw him, I had a real sick feeling,” sister Barbara recalled of the picnic, in an interview two years ago. “I thought he was either going to kill mom or Kenneth.”
Robert Harris had other crimes on his mind. He wanted to rob a bank. His younger brother, Daniel, 18, was willing to help. They stole guns from a neighbor, returned to San Diego, and took target practice. They dropped by their father’s home. Nothing much had changed. The old man clubbed his son in the head with a wrench.
Then, on July 5, 1978, five months and 26 days after his release from prison, Robert kidnaped John Mayeski and Michael Baker, both 16. He wanted their car for the getaway from the bank robbery. After some joking and laughter, and a promise no harm would come to them, he told them to start walking.
Then he killed them.
Robert Harris outlived his parents. His mother died in 1981 of cancer. “She never had anything good to say for Robbie,” sister Brenda Harris said.
Three years ago this month, Kenneth Harris Sr. placed a shotgun against his chest and squeezed. Randy Harris said he once spoke to his father about the life and crimes that led little Robbie to the gas chamber.
After thinking about his creation, the old man demanded to know: “How could that bastard do that?”