The Unquiet Death of Robert Harris

Article excerpt

On April 21, Robert Alton Harris was put to death in California's gas chamber for the 1978 murder of two teenagers, John Mayeski and Michael Baker His case--California's first lethal gassing in twenty-five years--generated intense media scrutiny around the world. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a class-action civil rights suit challenging the use of cyanide gas as cruel and unusual punishment. A decision from US. District Court Judge Marilyn Patel is expected shortly. This issue is harshly illuminated by the following astonishing eyewitness account of the execution by a close friend of Robert Harris, who met the condemned man in 1984 while writing an article about Harris's neighbor on death row.


"Ladies and gentlemen. Please stay in your places until your escort comes for you. Follow your escort, as instructed. Thank you."

The words were spoken in the manner of the operator of the Jungle Cruise at Disneyland: well-rehearsed and "professional." They were spoken by San Quentin's public information officer, Vernell Crittendon, as we waited to be ushered out of the gas chamber where my friend Robert Harris was slumped over, dead, in Chair B.

When not conveying us to and from the gas chamber, our "escorts" guarded us in a small, tidy office with barred windows facing the east gate, where a circus of media lights lit up the night sky, letting us see silhouettes in the darkness. There were two desk the exact number of straight-backed chairs needed to accommodate us, some nineteen-cent bags of potato chips, a couple of apples and bananas, and bad coffee.

We--a psychologist and lawyer who knew Robert Harris professionally, his brother Randy, whom he had designated to witness the gassing, and I, a close friend for nearly a decade--had entered at the west gate at 10 P.M. as instructed to present our credentials (a written invitation from Warden Daniel Vasquez himself) and submit to a thorough pat-down search and a metal detector. Our escorts took us in a prison van to the front of the old fortress and escorted us up a few steps into the office of one G. Mosqueda, program administrator. Then we began what we thought at the time would be a short vigil. It turned out to be eight hours.

We'd been there only a few minutes when another staff person arrived wearing a civilian suit and a name tag that identified him as Martinez. He walked up to Randy, pointed his finger and said, "Randall Harris. Come with me!" Randy smiled, got up and followed him out. (Randy told me later that he thought they were taking him for counseling. It was a fair assumption; counselors had been provided by the prison to advise members of the victims' families who had come to witness the execution. This was to insure, Warden Vasquez told them, that "there is only one casualty in that room.")

"Where have you taken Randy?" the lawyer asked as soon as he was gone. "I don't know," replied Mendez. "You'll have to ask Martinez." Mendez was our escort, you see. An escort only escorts. When they brought him back, he told his own horror story. He had been ordered to submit to a full body-cavity search. "We have learned from a reliable source that you are planning something"' Martinez had said. Randy protested that he was there for his brother, a solemn responsibility he would rather not have. He asked who the "reliable source" was. "None of your business," he was told. He was ordered to take his clothes off, bend over, lift his testicles, pull back his foreskin. He had to open his mouth for inspection. "If you try anything," Martinez had threatened, "you'll be sorry, and so will your brother."

His brother was waiting just a few feet from the gas chamber.

After Randy rejoined us, shaken and humiliated, our escort gave us our marching orders. "When the phone rings and I get the order to go, stand and follow me quickly." The phone, which had the kind of clanging ring that scares you to death even when you are not already scared to death, rang many times that night and each time our hearts stopped. …