THE execution of Robert Alton Harris in the California gas
chamber early April 21 marks a watershed in the political and legal
struggle over capital punishment in America.
It is not only the first state-sanctioned death in California in
25 years but underscores the expanding use of society's ultimate
punishment outside the South.
The state is the fourth this year, along with Arizona, Delaware,
and Wyoming, to carry out the death penalty for the first time
since the US Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976.
The execution has taken on added significance because of
California's position in the national ethos as a trend-setter.
The state has played a major role in the evolution of capital
punishment in modern politics, from former native son Richard
Nixon's law-and-order crusade in 1968 to Ronald Reagan's tenure in
Sacramento and Washington, D.C.
"California has been one of the major states in the fight over
the death penalty in the last 50 years," says Hugo Bedau, a Tufts
University philosopher. "With the execution of Harris, there is a
major hole in the dike - a major defeat in the strategy of those
seeking to keep executions confined to the South."
Convicted of killing two teenage boys in San Diego in 1978,
Harris was put to death by cyanide gas in an airtight steel capsule
at San Quentin prison early April 21. It followed a flurry of
dramatic last-minute appeals that had the execution off one moment
and on the next. The last stay arrived as Harris was strapped in
the gas chamber.
In the end, Supreme Court overturned that stay, the fourth, and
ordered the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals not to file any more.
For death penalty supporters, the Harris case, after 14 years in
the courts, came to symbolize what is wrong with the
criminal-justice system in capital cases - allowing seemingly
endless appeals. His case made it to the US Supreme Court five
In recent years, the high court has been increasingly placing
limits on such procedures, and supporters see the Harris case as a
bridge to an era of more "timely" executions.
"This was the clog in the pipe," says Michael Rushford,
president of the Sacramento-based Criminal Justice Legal
Foundation. "There are virtually no more arguments in opposition to
the death penalty that have not been put to rest as a result of
Death penalty foes see the execution as a dark hour for
civilization and criminal justice. …