The Unquiet Death of Robert Harris
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 desks, the exact number of straight-backed chairs needed to accommodate us, some nineteen-cent bags of potat0 chips, a couple of apples and bananas, and black 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, 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. Thenwe 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 wasa fair assumption; counselors had been provided by the prison to assist members of the victims’ families who had come to witness the execution. This was to insure, Warden Vasquez told them, that “there 1s 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 opehni s mouth for inspectlon.
“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. But the call did not come at midnight. It did not come for a long time.
With no television to inform us, we waited, hour after hour, wondering what was happening, drinking bad coffee and asking to be escorted to the bathroom.
Later, we learned that in those hours, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit had granted three stays of execution.
One concerned newly discovered evidence that Robert’s brother Danny, who had participated in the crime, and received
fewer than four years in exchange for his testimony against Robert, had actually fired the first shot.
The two other stays, including one signed by ten judges. were based on the pending
suit challenging the constitutionality of cyanide gas as a method of execution. Each of the three stays was dissolved by the Supreme Court.
Finally, a little after 3 o’clock, the call came and Mendez said, “Now.”
We followed him into the freezing, brilliant night, but Mendez stopped us just short of the entrance to the gas chamber.
Shivering, we watched other witnesses being led out of the cold -- the media-- into a building opposite the gas chamber, and the victims’ family members into the East Block visiting room just beyond it. After a while, responding to words over his walkie-talkie I could not hear, Mendez led us into the main
visiting room to our immediate right. I had been in this room many times, but never at night, and never, as now, was it deserted of staff and Inmates.
We were in the middle of something indescribably ugly. It was nakedly barbaric.
(While we waited, unaware of the cause for the delay, prison officials were arguing fiercely about where to set up the video
camera that Judge Patel had ordered to assist her in determining whether death by lethal gas IS cruel and unusual punishment-
an order that had been vigorously opposed by the attorney general. Just outside the entrance to the gas chamber, not ten feet from where I was pacing nervously and watching the clock, the man assigned by the defense team to operate the camera was met by San Quentin’s public information officer.
He writhed for seven minutes, his head falling on his chest, saliva drooling from his open mouth. He lifted his head again and again. Seven minutes. A lifetime. Nine more minutes passed with his head slumped on his chest. His heart, a survivor’s heart, kept pumping for nine more minutes, while we
held each other.
Some of the witnesses laughed. I thought of the label “Laughing Killer,” affixed to Robert by the media, and knew they would never describe these good people as
We were in the middle of something indescribably ugly. Not just the fact of the
cold-blooded killing of a human being, and not even the fact that we happened to love him. but the ritual of it, the participation of us, witnesses, the witnessing itself of this most private and personal act. It was nakedly barbaric.Nobody could say this had anything to do with justice, I thought. Yet this medieval torture chamber is what a large majority of my fellow Californians, including most in the room with me, believe in. The implications of this filled me with fear -- fear for myself and for all of us, a fear I am
ashamed to confess -- while my friend was being strangled slowly to death in front of me.
Some witnesses began shuffling nervously. People looked at their watches. Then a guard stepped forward and announced that Robert Alton Harm, C.D.C. Prlsoner B-66883, had expired in the gas chamber at 6:21 A.M., sixteen minutes
after the cyanide had been gently lowered into the sulfuric acid. Sixteen minutes. He was a fighter to the end.
It was the moment Crittendon had been waiting for. He stepped into the middle of the quiet room, his Jheri-Kurls reflecting
the eerie green light from the gas chamber where my friend lay dead, slumped forward against the straps in Chair B.
“Ladles and gentlemen. Please stay in your places until your escort comes for you. Follow your escort, as instructed. Thank you.”
Our guard came and we followed him out. The eighteen media witnesses, who had stood against the wall opposite us
scribbling on paper provided by the prison, preceded us out of the room. As they had been for weeks, they were desperate for a Harris family member to say something to them.
"Is this a Harris? Is this a Harrls?” a reporter standing just outside the door shouted, pointing at each of us as we emerged into the first light of morning over San Francisco Bay.
My god, it was a beautiful day.
And then the phone rang!
The phone to the gas chamber rings for only one reason: A stay of execution has been granted. But nothing happened. Nobody moved -- nobody except Robert, that is, who twisted and turned trying to figure what was happening. He peered down between his legs to see if he could see the vat of acid beneath him. He sniffed the air and
mouthed the words, “Pull it.” More minutes passed.
He peered over his left shoulder where I was just out of his line of vision. “Where’s Mike?” he mouthed.
I jumped down to the lower riser and walked over to the window. A female guard ordered me back to my place, but not before Robert saw me, smiled and settled down.
Ten minutes after the phone rang, the gas chamber door was opened and the three guards unfastened Robert and took him from the chamber. Nothing like that had ever happened in the history of the gas chamber.
(I. later learned that during that eternity, California’s Attorney General, Dan Lungren, had been on the phone to the clerk of the U.S. Supreme Court informing him that Robert was in the chamber. Lungren begged the Justices to overturn the stay. But the Court wanted time to read what Circuit Court Judge Harry Pregerson had written in the fourth, and last, stay of execution, so Lungren was told to take Robert from the chamber.)
We were escorted back to Mosqueda’s office to continue waiting.
I shook uncontrollably for a long time, and cried openly. My escort suggested I needed medical attention, hinting I might have to leave. I forced back my tears and pulled myself together, although I could not stop trembling.
Karen, the lawyer with us, picked up the heavy phone and dialed the office where lawyers who supported Harris had gathered.
People there were crying. They did not know Robert had been spared from inside the chamber. They thought he was dead!
We resumed the grim vigil, cut off from the outside world.
Just after 6 in the morning,I saw the witnesses from the victims’ families being led past our window toward the chamber.
Some were laughing. As honored guests, they had been playing video games, napping in the warden’s home and eating specially prepared food.
My heart stopped. Something was happening. Again, Karen called the same office and was told the stay of execution was still in place. But, as with the aborted execution attempt, they were the last to know.
Within fifteen seconds, the phone clattered to life, and Mendez told us the stay had been dissolved. (He did not tell us the Supreme Court had ordered all federal courts to enter no mores stays of execution regardless of the issues.) We were going again.
Quickly we moved through the chill dawn air toward the chamber. Randy whispered in my ear, “Slow down.” Near the entrance, Verne11 Crittendon stood watching the procession move smoothly into the chamber. He pumped his upturned fist three times, the way football players do when their team has scored.
When they brought Robert In, he was grim-faced, tired and ashen. Beyond the horror of having stood at the brink of the
abyss just two and a half hours before, he had been up for several days and nights. He was under horrific pressure.
Again, he nodded to acquaintances. He did not smile. He faced to his right and said “I’m sorry” to the father of victim Michael Baker, the one family member he recognized
from his endless rounds of television appearances. He craned his neck left once more and nodded quickly toward us. “It’s
all right,” he reassured us.
After about two minutes, he sniffed
the air, then breathed deeply several times.
His head began to roll and his eyes closed, then opened again. His head dropped, then came up with an abrupt Jerk, and rolled some more. It was grotesque and hideous, and I looked away. When I looked back, his head came up again and I covered my mouth. Randy was whimpering in pain next
to me, and we clutched each other. The lawyer, sobbing audibly, put her arms around us and tried to comfort us. I could
not stop shivering.
Reverend Harris, Robert’s second cousin
and spiritual adviser, who had been with Robert in the holding cell almost until the moment they took him away, whispered,
“He’s ready. He was tired. It’s all right. His punishment 1s over.”
“HOW much time will it take you to set up?” Crittendon demanded. “Five minutes, or so,” he was told.
“We don’t have five minutes,” he yelled.
And then the wait was over.
Mendez spoke into his walkie-talkie. “Okay,” he said, and then turned his attention on us. “Let’s go.”
We, the family and friends of the condemned, were led to rlsers along a wall behind and to the left of the chamber. Three
burly guards brought Robert in and strapped him quickly to Chair B. His back was to us. He could see us only by craning
his neck and peering over his left shoulder.
From behind him, I looked over his right shoulder into the unblinking red eye of the video camera trained on his face. He peered around the room, making eye contact, smiling and nodding at people he knew. I held my breath. A guard’s digital watch started beeping. She smiled sheepishly and covered it with her sleeve.
Minutes passed. Some people whispered. Some smiled.