Robert Alton Harris.
On Tuesday, April 21, 1992,
39 year old Robert Alton Harris was put to death in the gas chamber at San
Quentin Prison in California's first execution for 25 years.
He had been sentenced to die for the particularly brutal killing of two teenage boys in 1978, whose car he had hijacked for use in a bank robbery.
execution had originally been scheduled for 12:01 a.m., half an hour after the
first stay was overturned, but was then postponed for nearly four hours while
courts considered applications claiming that execution by lethal gas was cruel
and unusual punishment under the 8th Amendment to the Constitution. On that
issue, a federal judge ruled that the execution had to be filmed to see the
extent of Harris' suffering and a camera was mounted on a tripod outside the
The execution was re-scheduled for 4:01 a.m. Shortly before 3 a.m., he got dressed in new jeans and a blue prison shirt.
He was strapped into one of the two chairs in the gas chamber and had been waiting for 12 minutes for the execution to be carried out when an unexpected call came through saying a US appellate judge had granted a further stay. Some of the 49 official witnesses, who included "12 reputable citizens" selected by the warden, spoke of their horror and astonishment as Harris was unbuckled and led away by guards.
stays of execution had been granted and overturned in nine hours. But the
Supreme Court finally issued an unprecedented order that no further stay would
be valid unless issued by the court itself.
Shortly before 6 a.m., Harris was again led back to the chamber. He was described as looking resigned to his fate and was fully cooperative with the guards who led him the 15 paces from his cell. He was strapped into the metal chair and a stethoscope taped to his chest.
The door was closed and sealed and at 6:05 a.m., he began breathing deeply, staring ahead and attempting to mouth the words "it's all right" and "I'm sorry."
At 6:07, a prison official operated the lever, slowly lowering the pellets of cheesecloth wrapped sodium cyanide into the small vat of sulfuric acid beneath the chair to create the lethal hydrocyanic gas. Harris took a number of deep breaths and for several minutes appeared to gasp and twitch convulsively. His head snapped back and then dropped as he strained against the straps. After a minute, his hands seemed to relax. His mouth was open and his face flushed and turned blue. Three minutes later there was a cough and a convulsion.
At 6:21 a.m., (eleven minutes after the start) Warden Daniel Vasquez declared Harris dead and announced the words Harris had chosen to be remembered by. Taken from the film Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, they were: "You can be a king or a street sweeper. But everybody dances with the grim reaper."
Christina Crystal who witnessed the execution for UPI, said afterwards: "It wasn't as hard to watch as I thought it would be the second time around. Harris seemed to lose consciousness after about one-and-half minutes." She, and other witnesses, said he looked a very different and more solemn Robert Harris than two hours earlier.
After the execution, the exhaust fan is switched on to remove the hydrocyanic gas and then the dead body is sprayed with liquid ammonia to neutralize any remaining gas.
The last stage in the process is "Procedure 769" in which staff wearing gas masks and rubber gloves remove the body having first ruffled the hair to ensure that no gas is trapped in it.
Robert Harris had a violent and unhappy childhood that started in the womb. He was born three months premature after his mother was brutally assaulted by his father who kicked her in the stomach.
Both parents inflicted frequent beatings on young Robert who suffered a broken jaw at the age of two after a punch from his father.
For sport, his father would load a gun and tell the children they had 30 minutes to hide outside the house, after which he would shoot them down like animals.
Eventually Harris senior was jailed for sexually molesting his daughters, while the mother smoked and drank herself to death.
Robert Harris was 25 years old when he shot and killed two San Diego teenagers. Prosecutors told the jury that Harris taunted the victims before they died, laughed at them after he pulled the trigger, then calmly ate the hamburgers they had bought for lunch.