CALIFORNIA'S move toward its first execution in 25 years is
reviving the emotional debate over capital punishment in America.
Barring any last-minute reprieves, Robert Alton Harris will be
put to death in the gas chamber at San Quentin prison next month.
In the 16 years since the US Supreme Court reinstated capital
punishment, 166 people have been executed in 18 states. Critics
worry that the resumption of executions in a bellwether state like
California will add credibility to a punishment that they consider
California would be one of only a handful of states outside the
South to use the death penalty since it was reinstated by the
United States Supreme Court in 1976. The state is also significant
because it has 327 inmates on death row, the second highest number
"When California executes its first person, it is making a very
important statement that capital punishment is mainstream," says
John Poulos, a law professor at the University of California at
Davis, who has represented death-row inmates.
"It is no longer largely confined to some Southern states known
for their harsh system of justice," he says.
Public opinion in favor
Supporters see the pending execution as a sign that the criminal
justice system is finally catching up with the public will - that a
punishment which is appropriate and which opinion polls show people
heavily favor may once and for all be carried out.
"No one should rejoice in the taking of any human life," says
state Attorney General Dan Lungren. "But we live in a society of
laws where convicted criminals must face the consequences of their
Mr. Harris, convicted in the 1978 killings of two teenage San
Diego boys, is scheduled to go to the gas chamber April 21.
Although he has survived four previous execution dates, and his
lawyers are trying to make it a fifth, experts see little chance of
another judicial reprieve. Absent that, his lawyers will seek
clemency from California Gov. Pete Wilson (R), though that is
unlikely given Mr. Wilson's support of capital punishment.
More than the South
The South leads in numbers of executions, with Texas (46),
Florida (27), Louisiana (20), and Georgia (15) at the top. Other
states are joining the list. Delaware last week executed a man for
the first time in 46 years. Oklahoma put two people to death
earlier this month, and the first execution in modern times in
Arizona is scheduled for April 6, though delays are still being
"What's happening is that after a stall through the late 1980s,
the number of states with at least token executions has expanded in
the last year and a half," says Franklin Zimring, a law professor
and death-penalty expert at the University of California at