STATE-ASSISTED SUICIDE: THE EXECUTION AND TRIUMPTH OF ROBERT MASSIE
by Michael A. Kroll
Published March 27, 2001
by Pacific News Service
I am guilty of a homicide.
I did not act alone. We, the taxpayers of California, performed the killing collectively. The man we killed was my friend.
I came to know Bob Massie about 15 years ago when he wrote to tell me he admired my writings about the death penalty. Over the years we met many times and exchanged copious communication. Bob's letters were always filled with citations from capital cases, and always included an attempt to convince me of the soundness of his legal thinking.
He argued that the state law mandating an automatic appeal in any case where the death penalty is imposed amounts to trying someone twice for the same crime. This is double jeopardy, he insisted.
Therefore, he should be set free.
Massie decided he could best prove his point by refusing to appeal and demanding to be put to death. It became the singular goal of his sad life.
Last January, Massie asked the court to dismiss his federal petition for review. He asked me to increase my visits and witness his execution so I
could write about his death and make the citizens of California understand that he was dying for the cause of abolition. He was "on a
I told him I did not understand how this could end the death penalty, and that I had no desire to witness his execution. But I agreed so I could continue visiting and to try to dissuade him.
Robert Lee Massie, On Death Row for 22 years Executed March 27, 2001 at San Quentin
He pled guilty and was sent to California's death row. He tried,
unsuccessfully, to waive his appeals. A prison psychologist diagnosed him with a disorder "tantamount to an acute schizophrenic reaction."
Then, in 1972, the death penalty was declared unconstitutional. A few
years later, after a brief period of freedom, my friend was involved in an altercation in a San Francisco liquor store. As he was leaving, the proprietor grabbed him from behind. A lifetime in prisons had
conditioned him to fear above all else being held from behind. He freed one hand, drew out a revolver and aimlessly fired three times. One shot hit the proprietor and killed him.
During his trial, my friend was "in and out of competence," he said. He had been taking drugs steadily, and the jail medical staff prescribed lithium to control his paranoia and depression.
But he remembered that at the very time he was being tried, convicted and sentenced to death for his unplanned homicide, Dan White was being
sentenced to a short term of years in a courtroom just down the hall for methodically killing the mayor of San Francisco and Supervisor Harvey Milk.
One week before his execution, I went to court as his "next friend," to try to block the execution on the grounds that he was mentally ill, unstable, profoundly depressed, and therefore not competent to waive judicial review.
From that moment, I was Massie's enemy. He saved his most passionate hatred for the lawyers who continued to try to save his life, and now he cast me into that despised category.
I never got around to asking my friend if he had any recollection of his mother giving him up to the care of the state when he was not yet six years old. I know he remembered because he told me he wanted to forget
his years in foster homes, spread-eagled beatings, his head pushed down into the toilet bowl and held under.
In juvenile hall at age 11, he had a few new experiences. Small of stature and somewhat effeminate, he was gang raped repeatedly. But he never talked much about any of that, did not think it mattered, did not see a connection to his current mental health. "Everybody's a victim," he would say.
He did share one searing memory. At 12, my friend was put on a Virginia chain gang. The boys went out in all weather, chained together, and dug trenches that they then filled. One day, one of the boys just fell over dead. A guard unchained the dead body and tossed it into the pit. The
chained boys covered him over and continued working.
Massie was pleased to know that I work with young writers in juvenile hall. He told me to pass them a message of understanding and solidarity.
They understood him - not knowing that when he was their age, medical reports described him as "very disturbed little boy who will need care outside of his home for a long period of time."
The little boy got no care. Ever.
At 17, beginning to fall apart, he was transferred to a prison medical facility and evaluated as having "undergone a severe personality disorganization." Outside, he began to treat his symptoms with alcohol, methamphetamines, and other drugs. In 1965, strung out on his "medicines," my friend killed a fellow human
being in a robbery attempt gone bad
Massie wanted to die. He tried to kill himself. He failed. He tried again. Another failure. By the time of his 1989 retrial, he was insanely committed to his theory of double jeopardy. But, as every attorney who had represented him or corresponded with him had warned, no court would
accept his theory, and he was again sentenced to death. He saw all this as proof that the courts are corrupt and that defense lawyers were his
To overcome them, he decided, he had to die - dismiss his appeals and seek to be executed. But he realized that a court would not allow him to
do that if he was seen as irrational or incompetent.
So he stopped seeing psychiatrists. He stopped creating a record of his
mental status, so that by the time the question of his competence came up again, there was no recent record. By chance, the lawyer appointed to represent him had no experience in criminal law and would do whatever he was told by an intelligent client.
My friend, Bob Massie, maneuvered the state of California into assisting
in his suicide. He had his own lawyer doing the dance of death with the attorney general and managed to avoid being declared incompetent.
A brilliant performance. But brilliance is not the same as mental health. I greatly admired, and shall greatly miss, Bob Massie's intelligence. At the same time, I feel guilty relief that he no longer
has to wrestle with the demons of his dark mental processes that rendered him irrational and incompetent, despite the courts' rulings.
And I believe that my efforts to prevent the suicide of this mentally unstable man unwittingly gave Bob Massie a triumphant exit, proof that
he could outsmart and outmaneuver any conspiracy to keep him alive.
How satisfying it must have been at last to have been led into the chamber. How competent he must have felt. I hope the last thought he had
before we killed him was, "Ha ha! I beat them all. I won."