Anyone who has lived as long as I have (70+ years) will, like me, have many experiences to fall back on, to tell stories about, and to build on. For me, that includes: growing up in the idyllic Ojai Valley, California (where I developed a life-long love of snakes and other reptiles); graduating from U.C. Berkeley, where I went to jail (for the first time) as one of nearly 800 students arrested in the 1964 Free Speech Movement; joining the Peace Corps, which sent me to Malaysian Borneo to teach English in a Chinese secondary school for three years (and continuing to maintain close relationships with those students 50 years later); teaching English as a Second language, among other subjects, in cities across the country; seeking to end the death penalty and reform our criminal justice system through direct political activism; being asked to inaugurate the national organization, the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C.; conducting writing workshops in juvenile halls, jails and prisons, through a program called The Beat Within; and always writing, writing, writing. In addition to one book (“Beijing and Beyond” that chronicles a 1980 tour of China’s criminal justice system), I have been published widely in newspapers from The New York Times to the Los Angeles Times, and in publications as disparate as The Nation and Progressive magazines on one hand, and Women’s World on the other. Also, in furtherance of my thespian tendencies, I have written two movie scripts (one sold), and a stage play. Currently, from my home in Oakland, California, I am working on both a mystery novel and a memoir.
"I contain multitudes..." Walt Whitman
LIFE STUDIES: Michael A. Kroll
Christopher Haugh, S. F. Chronicle
Tuesday, April 17, 2012
When his friend Robert Alton Harris mouthed "Where's Mike?" from the gas chamber, Michael Kroll quickly maneuvered into the restrained prisoner's line of sight to reassure him. It would be the last time the two saw each other.
Now, with the 20-year anniversary of Harris' execution approaching, Kroll and Death Penalty Focus are working to mark the event.
In a series of events called "Requiem for the Death Penalty," the nonprofit as well as other co-sponsors, including the ACLU of Northern California, are showing a documentary on Harris' execution, "Procedure 769," and holding a reading of Kroll's new play, "Just Like a Dog."
Kroll's play is a fictional account about how Brandon, the doleful younger brother of a condemned man, and Betty, the once-vengeful mother of the victim, find common ground and peace of mind despite their circumstances and opposing views.
A regular at San Quentin State Prison's Death Row, the 69-year-old Kroll has built the reputation of a companion to the condemned.
"I like the misfits," he says. But "even people I like sitting with, I wouldn't want walking around. I wouldn't want them to be my neighbor, but I can still have a conversation about art with them."
Born in the shadow of the Los Padres National Forest in Ojai, Kroll got his penchant for political dissent from his parents, Max and Blanche, who steeped family dinners with political debate.
"I disagree," Kroll wrote as his favorite quote in his high school yearbook.
At 15, Kroll first became intrigued by the death penalty issue when Elizabeth Ann Duncan went on trial in nearby Ventura County for paying a man to kill her pregnant stepdaughter. By the time Duncan was gassed in 1962, Kroll had some big questions: How did these executions proceed? Who performed them? Why?
Kroll began investigating the men who performed these executions. In an article for the San Francisco Examiner, he interviewed wardens, prison guards, and chaplains who revealed the cogs of an execution: the stench of an execution chamber, the foreboding heavy steel doors, and the somber emotion of a condemned prisoner's last minutes on Earth.
Later enrolling at UC Berkeley, Kroll reveled in the liberal atmosphere, protesting the Vietnam War, ROTC loyalty oaths and San Quentin executions.
After graduating in 1965, Kroll got a job with the ACLU's New Orleans office. On his first day there, in his desk drawer, he found hundreds of letters, each more upsetting than the last. Despite a de facto national moratorium on the death penalty, thousands of inmates remained on Death Row. They had written to the ACLU, desperate for an explanation.
"I was outraged that my country could execute people in such a protracted, moribund way," says Kroll, who later became the founding director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C.
In 1983, as a writer for the Pacific News Service, Kroll found himself in San Quentin interviewing Ronald Fuller, a Death Row inmate convicted of killing a cabdriver in Los Angeles. Throughout the interview, Fuller insisted that Kroll meet "Harry" - Robert Alton Harris.
Kroll was reluctant to meet another inmate, but when the two men talked, they clicked. Kroll enjoyed Harris' company and returned week after week to chat over games of dominoes.
The pair would discuss life inside the prison's walls. Once in a while, they would talk about his life before prison. Kroll says Harris was a remorseful man who always took full responsibility for his crimes.
As their friendship blossomed, Kroll joined Harris for Christmas and Thanksgiving feasts in San Quentin's visiting rooms when the prison still allowed guests to visit with apple pies and turkeys.
In 1989, Kroll resigned from his job to serve as a mitigation expert for Harris. Scouring Harris' history, Kroll was tasked with discovering clues that might signal to an appeals court that Harris deserved life in prison, not death by poison gas. Kroll interviewed Harris' family members, teachers and friends looking for signs of mental illness, sexual abuse, or any other traumatic experience that could have explained Harris' violent behavior.
'I lost a friend'
But Kroll's research ultimately failed to stop the execution.
Standing on risers in San Quentin's windowless execution chambers, lit by a single, naked lightbulb, Kroll stood head down, embracing Harris' brother, Randy. By the time Harris was pronounced dead, Kroll was shaking and distraught. To this day, he still has nightmares about imprisonment.
Until 2001, Kroll served as a mitigation expert for men facing death sentences. Despite his best efforts, most execution orders would never be overturned. Today, as he prepares to commemorate the anniversary of Harris' death, Kroll continues to visit inmates, but he vows to never again witness an execution.
"I was traumatized. I still suffer from PTSD," he says with difficulty, recalling Harris' drawn-out, 16-minute death. "I lost a friend."