Witness to the Execution: A Macabre, Surreal Event


The hiss of flowing liquid was our sign that the execution of Robert Alton Harris had begun.

Sulfuric acid filled the two vats beneath his seat. He peered down, between his knees, into his personal abyss. In seconds, he knew, cyanide pellets would drop, react with the acid, and the gas would rise. This was it--he was a dead man.

Then, a phone beside the gas chamber rang twice. The sound was loud enough that Harris must have heard it.


“Oh, God,” a voice said from where the families of Harris’ murder victims stood. It took me a minute to figure out what was happening. It was a stay--the fourth of this long night, the night on which the state of California was to resume executions after a 25-year break.

We, the 48 official witnesses to the execution of Robert Harris, soon learned what the delay was about. But inside the gas chamber, the antihero of this drama seemed puzzled. He sat in the metal chair, facing away from us, but aware that all eyes were trained on him.

He looked around, the picture of confusion and nerves. His arms were strapped down, but he tried to motion with his hands and seemed to mouth a plea: “Let’s pull it.”

Time seemed to slow, even for the witnesses. My mouth turned dry, a symptom of stress. Air could be heard blowing through ducts in this half-century-old building inside San Quentin, next to North Block, downstairs from Death Row.

There were the sounds of an old prison: the rattling of keys, the opening of doors, footsteps on the dark green, slickly waxed tile floor of the gas chamber witness room.

The prison describes the color of the gas chamber as “apple green.” In truth, it’s the green of an apple no one on this Earth has tasted. At 4 a.m. Tuesday morning, with the lights inside shining brightly on Robert Harris, the green looked almost fluorescent.

The scene was all the more striking because the three bulbs above us in the witness area were so dim and the beige walls so drab.

By all rights, Harris surely realized, this contraption installed 52 years ago should have done its business by now. A sad smile came over his face. He looked up and down, wrinkled his brow, and glanced over his left shoulder to where his older brother, Randy, stood. He looked then at a friend, a guard, who stood braced against the waist-high rail that keeps the witnesses a step back from this riveted death chamber.

As we watched, Harris raised his brow quizzically, as if to ask: What gives? He rolled his eyes and swiveled his head to look out the window to the right, toward a friendly face. With a look of futility he said, “I can’t move.”

Finally, the sounds of flushing and machinery whirring were heard again. The vats of sulfuric acid beneath Harris were being pumped empty--made safe against an accidental triggering of the gas. That done, guards opened the chamber door.

He was back from the dead. The guards unleashed Harris and walked him back to a nearby cell, to wait for his death to start all over again.

In the ghoulish history of the San Quentin gas chamber, no one had ever been removed alive.

Sharron Mankins, the mother of one of the teen-age boys Harris murdered almost 14 years ago, held a tissue and wept, without a sound.

In all, 48 official witnesses, family members and friends watched this macabre and surreal scene. I was one of 18 journalists. I had taken the assignment because I was convinced that in a state where political careers rise and fall on the death penalty issue, and where almost everyone has an opinion about it, newspapers have an obligation to report on it completely. That means this last, violent, grim step. I still hold fast to that view. That said, I won’t view another.

We knew through most of the day Monday that attorneys were exchanging legal volleys, Harris winning some points to stay alive, the state of California winning some others to keep the execution almost on schedule.

Finally, Tip Kindel, the state Department of Corrections spokesman, turned solemn and announced to us that all stays had been lifted. A few minutes past 3 a.m., the journalists piled into aging prison buses and rode through the inner gates toward the gas chamber. One bus rammed against a post.

“Keep going! Keep going!” the senior officer directed. The damaged state property would wait. The premium is on speed--before a new stay can be issued.

We were hustled into an employee lounge and searched. Each of us was handed a single No. 2 pencil and a pad of white legal sized paper--the only note-taking tools allowed.

As we filed into the room that contains the gas chamber, we saw the witnesses invited by the condemned against one wall. His older brother, Randy, close friend Michael Kroll, and three other friends were there.

Against another wall stood the mother and sister of murder victim Michael Baker and the sister of victim John Mayeski. Stephen Baker, the police officer who arrested Harris two hours after the crime--without knowing his suspect was the killer of his son--stood at the rail separating the witnesses by inches from the glass.

One group was there for closure, finality, revenge. The other to let the murderer know that no matter what he did, someone loved him. Neither side seemed to look at the other.

At 3:48 a.m., the gas chamber door opened with a clank. One guard appeared, then Harris, walking quickly, flanked by two more guards, all of them burly. Harris sat in the seat on the left. He put up no fight. He had no choice. Their arms engulfed him.

In a matter of seconds, his arms and chest were strapped by black restraints that look like seat beats. One officer stood behind, his thick arms clasped loosely around Harris’ chest, as the other two strapped his legs. Should Harris move, the officer’s clasp would turn to a painful grip.

Harris’ death uniform was a blue work shirt, open at the collar, blue jeans and a stethoscope, though that was not visible.

Immediately, he strained to look back at the witnesses. Over his left shoulder he found his friends and brother, nodded and gave a thumbs-up. Harris said something to the last departing guard and smiled.

The look on Harris’ face was puzzling. One reporter later described it as cocky. But that wasn’t it. It was more a look of embarrassment, resignation, acknowledgment that of all the ways to die, death at the hands of the People for crimes against the People, in full view of strangers, is most ignoble. It is a look of a man who is nervous and scared, but is trying to seem brave.

The hatch-like door shut with a thud. The chamber was sealed.

Harris looked over his shoulder at his people, then to where the reporters stood. Our eyes met, his gaze lingered briefly, then he continued to slowly pan these strangers who would share his final moments.

His hands moved in a motion that seems to say he’s impatient. “Pull the lever,” he mouthed. “It’s all right,” he seemed to say. He winked at the stocky guard, who nodded back.

The women who came to exact justice for their loved ones held hands and stood shoulder-to-shoulder. Linda Herring, dressed in black, locked her eyes on Harris. Mankins’ look was soft and sad. Marilyn Clark, Mayeski’s only relative to attend, teared up. Detective Baker stared. He couldn’t be any closer to the object of his hatred without being inside.

Against the other wall, Kroll held a hand against his heart. His other hand held the hand of a friend. He looked haunted, horrified, at what he was about to see.

As the moment approached, however, the muffled ring of the telephone stopped the death watch. Prison spokesman Vernell Crittendon conferred quietly with his superiors and announced everyone would be moved out “temporarily.”

By 4:15 a.m. we were back outside but told to stand close by. Sure enough, at 5:52, as the first glimmer of day reflected on San Francisco Bay, we are hurried back inside. This time we reporters were first. Then came the other witnesses.

This time, Randy Harris looked as if he were wearing a straitjacket--he stood with his arms wrapped tightly around himself. In fact, as he relaxed slightly, it became apparent that he was simply holding himself against what now was certain to come.

Linda Herring fixed her hard stare again, as did Detective Baker.

At 6 a.m., Crittendon spoke through a peephole: “Warden, we are all in place.”

Again, Harris was walked in. This time, his face was blank. His resignation and fear seemed greater. Again, officers swarmed over him, strapping his wrists, arms, chest, legs. The officer’s arms again were around Harris’ chest. There was no fight.

At 6:02 or so, Harris nodded to his officer friend, looked up, blinked, turned to his brother and looked away. After a pause, a thumbs-up again. His cousin, Leon Harris, returned the sign.

Then the moment everyone in the room will remember: He threw his head back over his left shoulder and caught the eye of Michael Baker’s still-grieving father.

“I’m sorry,” he mouthed.

Baker, a stoic, bitter and sad man, nodded his head sharply at this final confession.

At 6:07 by the warden’s watch, the pellets dropped and the colorless gas began to invade Robert Harris.

He just sat there, looking forward, hangdog. The first sign of death’s beginning was a twitch of his hands, as if the rising gas had stung his skin.

He inhaled and exhaled, four or five times. His head snapped back. His eyes rolled into his head. After 30 seconds, his head dropped, but he strained against the straps. Then his head rose as if by convulsion, then fell forward, slowly.

After a minute, his hands appeared relaxed. A vein that runs the length of his forehead bulged, then looked as if it would burst. His mouth was wide open; his face flushed, then turned almost purple.

He seemed oblivious at this point, perhaps two minutes into the execution. But then, as his body seemed to have relaxed, his head rose slowly and eerily.

As she watched, Sharron Mankins was crying silently. Marilyn Clark’s face was twisted in pain. Steve Baker just stared. Linda Herring, arms crossed, looked as if she wished Harris were dying harder.

Across the room, Michael Kroll’s hand covered his mouth, then his heart. Cousin Leon Harris turned his back, as if ministering to Randy.

Most of the four prison officers in front of me didn’t watch what unfolded in the gas chamber. Their job was to focus on the witnesses in case any of them took ill. None did.

At 6:11, there was a cough, a convulsion, a line of drool. His balding pate was visible, as was his tightly banded and short ponytail.

Deputy Atty. Gen. Louis Hanoian, who guided the Harris case through the final years, folded his hands in front of him and looked down.

The red light of a video camera, set up by order of a federal judge who tried to block the execution on the grounds that lethal gas might be cruel and unusual punishment, reflected against the gas chamber glass. The tape will be reviewed many times to come, as society tries to decide if gas is the right way to do this in the 1990s.

By 6:14 a.m., the body no longer moved. We the living shifted from foot to foot. Light filtered in through the blinds on three windows that look out to the east. At 6:21 a.m., the three hanging lights brightened. At 6:22, a note was pushed through the peephole in the door, and a guard relayed it to Crittendon, who read aloud:

“Warden Vasquez declares condemned inmate Harris, B-66883, dead.”