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The Fraternity of Death


     On January 23 the U.S. Supreme Court held in Robert Harris's case that states are not required by the U.S. Constitution to conduct proportionality review to ensure that, relative to the sentences of other persons convicted of murder, a death sentence is neither discriminatory nor arbitrary.

     Harris will now return to U.S. District Court in San Diego for a hearing on his other claim that the death penalty is discriminatorily imposed against those whose victims were white: while 42 percent of California's death row population is white and 37 percent is black, 72 percent of the victims of those on death row were white; only 8 percent were black. (Hispanics account for 17 percent of those condemned to death, and 14 percent were victims.)

     It has been seventeen years since the last gassing. Today there are nearly as many people awaiting their rendezvous with the gas chamber as have been executed in its 45-year history. The number of those condemned to die in California's gas chamber grows by approximately 40 people a year.

     When the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the claim of Robert Alton Harris this January, there were many who hoped that executions in California would resume immediately. Los Angeles County District Attorney Robert H. Philibosian, no doubt expressing the sentiments of a majority of his constituents, let it be known that he was looking forward to witnessing the grisly spectacle. Within two days, more than 100 people had put in their bids for ringside seats at the next killing of a human being in the gas cbamber at San Quentin Prison, just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. California Department of Corrections spokesperson Phil Guthrie, while promising to accommodate Philibosian's request, made it clear that he personally had no desire to watch. Unlike the district attorney and the other would-be spectators, Guthrie has already witnessed an execution--and for him, one was enough.

     The first victim of official lethal gassing in California was a pig. It was in March 1938, only two weeks after San Quentin prisoners bad unloaded the two-ton, eight-sided chamber from the harge that brought it across the Bay. According to Horace Jackson, whose Denver based Eaton Metal Products Company built the chamber, a pig is the hardest thing to kill. And "if it works on a pig," he says, "it'll work on a man." The animal was put into a wire cage that was then laid across the armrests of the two stainless steel chairs inside the chamber. When the gas reached its snout, the pig jumped to its feet and tried to turn around within the tiny space. Climbing up the side of the cage to the top, it tried to push its nose through the wire, outside the reach of the deadly fumes. Finally, it fell to tbe floor of the cage, drooling and snorting. And then it died.

     Warden Court Smith, a tough prison administrator who had presided over many hangings--and who supported capital punishment--turned his back, unable to watch the pig's desperate attempts to breathe. He did not see "that little pig die, straining away from the choking fumes, dashing his bead against unyielding steel, fighting with all the strength of his little body for those awful seconds," as San Frpncisco Chronicle reporter Willis O'Brien described it.

     O'Brien wrote: "If the men and women whom the State throws into the maw of this devouring monster suffer as that little pig suffered, if the mercy of nepenthe comes as slowly for the human body as it did for the little porker, then there will be terrible things done to men's souls and their tortured brains. . . . It is the most hellish form of capital punishment since civilized courts sentenced men to be hanged [or] drawn and quartered."

     Despite the promise of the early promoters of the gas chamber that the hydrocyanic acid gas furnes would bring quick, clean, and painless death in fifteen seconds, nearly three minutes passed before the 25-pound pig died. Since that day in 1938, Californians have gassed 196 human beings--sometimes alone, sometimes two at a time, strapped side by side in Chair A and Chair B. And not unlike the pig's final moments, the end has not always been particularly quick or painless for many who have faced their deaths at San Quentin.

     The gas chamber squats like a green toadstool in the corner of a high-ceilinged room. There is an ineffable quality here that causes your stomach to shrink up. It smells like a tomb, and you feel a chill that cannot be explained by the absence of the sun. As Lieutenant Bill McMullen turns the huge, brass, dungeonlike key in the door to admit us, be shudders slightly. "This place is eerie," he says. "I always feel it when I come into this room, like it's haunted or something. So many people have died here."

     The room itself is outside the main wall, as if banished by the living, but attached to the North Cell Block, which houses death row six floors above. The condemned enter from an inside door only a few feet opposite the entrance to the chamber itself. Official witnesses enter through a door of heavy steel and then one of prison bars. No outward signs identify the deadly contents of the room except for a T -shaped exhaust pipe, high atop the building, that spews the poison into the Marin sky after it has done its deed.

     Because of the time that has transpired since the last gassing, the staff at San Quentin is unfamiliar with the operation of the chamber, and preparing for the next execution will not be an easy task.

     The official manual for operating and maintaining the gas chamber is nine pages long. It covers everything from the types of chemicals to use (such as sodium cyanide manufactured by DuPont in one-ounce, pillow-shaped briquettes the size of pigeon eggs and marketed in one-pound cans) to instructions for removing the corpse ("It is recommended that the doctor and those removing the body wear" hydrocyanic gas masks and rubber gloves and that he ruffle the hair of the prisoner to allow any gas to escape which may be. trapped").

      But a written manual, no matter how complete, is no substitute for experience. So San Quentin recently called on Joe Ferretti to break in the five--member team that will officiate at upcoming executions. A short. affable man, Ferretti does not look his 79 years. When it comes to the gas chamber, there. are few people, living or dead, with as much experience as be has. In his 29 years at San Quentin, Ferretti participated in 126 executions. "I called my job babysitting,"  he says, "but the official name was death watch officer."

     Ferretti was the officer at the main gate before be got into this other line of work. He liked working outdoors and meeting the public. He remembers wondering how anyone could work in the gas chamber--until he was asked to do the job. "First I went home and asked my wife," he says. "She said it was all right with her if it was all right with me. So I tried it." He remained at the job for the next 2:l years. "I still kept my regular job at the front gate," he says, "but they'd assign someone else to do it when I was on death watch."

     "We earned $15 for death duty in the beginning," he says, chuckling. 'The last one I got $75. The executioner was making a lot more--$500 I think. He's dead now. Pretty near everyone's dead now."

     Although the official manual recommends a minimum of ten minutes to kill a man, sometimes it takes longer. "I remember one colored guy that took about fifteen minutes," Ferretti says. Unable to remember the man's name, he consults one of the most prized of his many prison mementos - a small, red-vinyl-covered notebook. It contains photographs of 117 whom Ferretti helped dispatch, as well as brief descriptions of their crimes. "Of course, I helped in 126 executions." he explains, "but back in '57 they decided I shouldn't keep this book. So I had to stop after 117." On the inside back cover, he has written the numbers of people whose deaths he attended by year, beginning in 1943 and ending in 1957: "1945 - 13; 1949 - 11; 1954 - 9..."

     When anything unusual happened during an execution, Ferretti faithfully recorded it in his little red book. Under the name Leanderess Riley, Ferretti wrote: "Had to carry to gas chamber. He unstrapped himself."

     Leanderess Riley went to death row in 1949 for killing a Sacramento laundry man. The gassing of the 33-year-old, one-eyed, nearly deaf man was, according to Joe Ferretti, "the nastiest execution we ever had. We bad to carry the little colored guy in hollering. You could hear him a block away. I never saw a guy so scared. in all my life. His wrists were so damn small--he only weighed 80 pounds or so--he managed. to get out of the straps three times."

     Leanderess Riley went to death row in 1949 for killing a Sacramento laundry man. The gassing of the 33-year-old, one-eyed, nearly deaf man was, according to Joe Ferretti, "the nastiest execution we ever had. We bad to carry the little colored guy in hollering. You could hear him a block away. I never saw a guy so scared. in all my life. His wrists were so damn small--he only weighed 80 pounds or so--he managed. to get out of the straps three times."

     Riley managed to undo his restraints just before the executioner lowered the cyanide into the vats of acid. He jumped up and frantically raced around inside the chamber, screaming in terror, beating wildly on the thick glass windows. "We had to stop the process, open the chamber and strap him in again," Ferretti recalls. ''Then be did it again, but the third time they already gave him the gas. He kept right on screaming, though, right up until he got that first whiff."

     The chief psychiatrist, Dr. David Schmidt, was summoned. He arrived to find that Mitchell's condition had not changed. It was then about three in the afternoon, just an hour before Ferretti was to come up the elevator to take the 38-year-old man to the gas chamber's holding cell. Schmidt called Wilson a few minutes later to say be did not think that Mitchell was insane. The law in California forbids the execution of an individual who is insane, because that person must be aware of what is happening to him, and why.

     Former warden Louis "Big Red" Nelson also remembers Leanderess Riley. To get himself through the execution, the tough-talking administrator had to rely on rote. “The fact that the fellow is crying and baying like a dog. . . you just can't deal with it at that point. You've got to carry out the job at hand. A grown man afraid to go to his death--as all of us are, to some degree--makes you sad. You feel sympathy for him, but you have to put those feelings aside."

     Nelson has no qualms about the death penalty. To him, our time on earth is like a tenant's relationship with a landlord. "If you mess up the place or don't pay the rent, you get evicted," says the man who is stiII remembered by convicts as a firm but fair administrator. On April 6, 1956, Nelson presided over the most unusual gassing he had. ever witnessed, one of the 22 double executions carried out in the gas chamber.


     The two men, both in their early twenties, had been convicted three years earlier for killing an Oakland cabdriver after robbing him of $7 and his wristwatch. Only seconds before Nelson gave the signal to begin, one of the prisoners, Robert Pierce, managed to cut his throat with a tiny sliver of mirror he had secreted in a book. Cutting deep enough to hit a vein, he bled profusely. Nelson remembers that ''they wrapped the blue shirt he had just changed out of around his neck and led him into the chamber with blood all over his arm and shirt. He began cursing the witnesses and society in general. He nodded toward the prison officials and made sure they knew he didn't hold them responsible. It was the witnesses. He called them every filthy name in the book."

     Then Pierce's partner, Smith Jordon, was brought in and strapped into Chair A. While Pierce screamed his curses, his new white shirt turning red, Jordon remained completely calm.

     "Because his arm was slippery with blood," Nelson recalls, "he was able to get his right forearm free. He was trying to free his other arm when the gas hit. Everything just stopped. His arm fell, and his sentence ended in the middle of a curse." Pierce's invective was welcomed by the pro-death-penalty warden. "That kind of behavior made it personally easier," Nelson says now. "You could tell yourself the SOB deserved it."

     Max Brice also remembers. Tall and gaunt, Brice was the officer in charge of executions for 35 years, until he retired to his Napa home in 1974. He says he never was really bothered by his job, never had bad dreams, hasn't thought about it much since. "If you're gonna have mental problems about it," he says, "it's better not to get on the detail to begin with."

     As the officer in charge. Brice tested the machinery three days before an execution, as well as the morning before to make sure the vacuum was intact. The day before he filled each of two cheesecloth bags with sixteen cyanide tablets and attached them to the rocker arms below Chair A and Chair B. There the bags remained suspended until lowered into the vats of acid.

     On the morning of the execution, Brice telephoned Western Union to make sure the gas chamber clock was accurate to the second. About ten minutes before the gassing, Brice poured a gallon and a half of distilled water into each of two mixing pots, connected by pipes to the wells under the chairs. To the water he added five pints of sulphuric acid. According to the official operating manual, ten minutes are required for the mixture to reach "an intimate mix and maximum temperature."

Inside back cover of Joe Ferretti's vinyl record book

     Of his recent experience as teacher to the new crop of executioners, he says, "I sbowed them the regular routine--what we done when I was there. We did executions at ten in the morning on Friday. On Thursday, around four, we'd go upstairs and get the inmate and bring him downstairs to the death cell next to the gas chamber. Then we'd stay there, two of us, till about nine-forty-five the next morning. We'd change his clothes to fresh jeans and a white shirt without any pockets, and no underwear or shoes. I guess gas could accumulate in places like that, and when you went in to get him you could get a whiff of the stuff."

     After strapping the condemned into the chamber and sealing the great steel door of the tank, he waited. "When the doctor says he's dead," Ferretti continues, "we start the pumps to pump the gas into tbe air outside. In about fifteen minutes, we crack the door a bit and turn a valve that lets air in the bottom. You have to pump for about half an hour before you can get in. Then two of us go in with a garden sprayer filled with ammonia to spray around his pants and clothes. It kind of neutralizes the gas. We go in in a hurry and unbuckle the straps. One grabs one side and one the other, and we scoot him into a redwood box made by prisoners in the carpentry shop. It's waiting just outside the door. Then a truck picks it up and takes it to the prison hospital where the family claims it."

     Usually at a minute past ten the warden nodded his head, and the ritual began. "Once the warden gave the signal," Brice says, "there was never a word spoken. Everybody knew his job, and we did our work." Sometimes, of course, the procedure was interrupted by a last-minute reprieve. Caryl Chessman spent twelve years on death row before being executed in 1960 for a crime that did not involve the taking of a life. In that time, his execution was postponed numerous times. "He used to send me notes that said, 'Well, you didn't get me this time,''' says Brice. Chessman, however, was the exception. "Most were real routine," Brice says. "They came downstairs pretty well resigned to their fate. They took it like men."

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