There’s been plenty of judicial maneuvering this week around a pending execution that would be California’s first in four years. But the drama barely compares to 1992’s dramatic last-minute legal smackdown over the execution of one of San Diego’s most notorious murderers.
Robert Alton Harris, the killer of two teenage boys snared outside a Jack in the Box, would become the first person put to death in the state in a quarter century. But first, a long night of “legal Ping Pong” brought him in and out of the gas chamber before the nation’s highest court declared that enough was enough and it was time for him to die.
“It was truly life imitating art, more like a movie than I think you can imagine,” said then-San Diego Union-Tribune reporter Lorie Hearn in an interview today. She witnessed both an aborted execution — called off with Harris in the gas chamber after a phone rang with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on the line — and the actual one hours later.
The murders happened on the morning of July 5, 1978, when Harris and his brother decided to steal a car in order to rob a bank. They found two 16-year-old boys, John Mayeski and Michael Baker, eating burgers outside a Jack in the Box in Mira Mesa and abducted them. Harris shot them both to death less than two hours later and ate their burgers.
The father of one of the victims was a police officer and arrested Harris without knowing that his son had been killed.
Harris was convicted in 1979, but his appeals dragged on into the 1990s. For his part, he declared himself to have become a “very caring human being.” The murders, he said, weren’t “something I have relished over.”
The appeals finally began to falter, and reporters and activists flocked to San Quentin State Prison on April 21, 1992, for the execution that night.
“We were all searched and were given a pencil and paper to take into the chamber with us,” said Hearn, who’s now director and editor of the Watchdog Institute, a local nonprofit news organization. “I remember I bought a stopwatch to wear on my wrist because I knew I needed to keep track of every detail I could possibly record.”
The witnesses gathered and Harris entered the gas chamber. And then the phone rang, “just like in a movie,” Hearn said, and everyone heard it. “It was completely surreal.”
It was a postponement from the Ninth Circuit court, its fourth within 24 hours. After 12 minutes of sitting in the gas chamber, Harris got to get up. The reporter witnesses went back to a jam-packed press area full of journalists sprawled across chairs and sacked out on the floor.
The U.S. Supreme Court, which had the final word, issued its fourth and last ruling as dawn neared: No more stays. The message was clear: Do it.
The witnesses were herded back in, and Harris returned to the gas chamber at 6:01 a.m. His last words: “You can be a king or a street sweeper, but everyone dances with the grim reaper.”
As Harris breathed the gas, his head went back and forth. The murderer, who’d shown a cocky side to the world, convulsed and died.
“I have a vivid memory of leaving the gas chamber,” Hearn recalled. “It had very high windows, and you could see the dawn light coming through. There was this strange green cast to the place.
“I remember being mesmerized by Robert Alton Harris’ body. I kept thinking, ‘He’s going to get up now. The play is done, he’ll get up now.’ I just thought, ‘Well, surely I didn’t really just watch someone die deliberately.’”
Within moments, the news reached the families of the victims at a home in San Diego’s Mira Mesa neighborhood as a flock of cameras watched.
“Thank God,” said one of Michael Baker’s step-sisters before bursting into tears, the Los Angeles Times reported. Then the two families went into a room, trailed by cameras, and snuffed out candles in front of photographs of the boys.
Later that day, a local radio station disc jockey read a newspaper headline — “Harris Is Dead” — and played the Rolling Stones song “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” with the lyric “it’s a gas, gas, gas.”
Since Harris’ death, the state has killed 12 more death-row prisoners. His execution was the second-to-last in the gas chamber. More recent executions have been performed through lethal injection.
Today, state officials called off the execution of murderer Albert Greenwood Brown Jr., at least for now, “hours after the California Supreme Court intervened in the case and made it all but impossible to carry out the death sentence,” the Los Angeles Times reported. His execution, delayed this week once already, had been scheduled for Thursday.
Hearn thinks reporters should watch all executions in the state. “There should always be many media witnesses to keep telling people what this looks like so it never becomes routine,” she said. “It’s extremely important to show the audience that we care enough about this and that they should care enough to know what this looks like.”