Double murderer Robert Alton Harris died in the gas chamber at dawn Tuesday in California's first execution in 25 years, after a dramatic last-minute stay was overturned.
The U.S. Supreme Court overturned that stay and three others filed through the night by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In an extraordinary move, frustrated justices ended the judicial duel by ordering the appeals court not to issue any more stays without permission.The fourth stay was issued after Harris already was strapped to the death seat. After the Supreme Court's ruling, Harris, 39, was hastily returned to the gas chamber, looking far more somber than earlier. But he winked and nodded at one guard and mouthed, "all right."
The gas was introduced at about 6:05 a.m., and shortly afterward Harris' head jerked from left to right before falling slowly to his chest. He appeared to be unconscious about 6:12 a.m., and was pronounced dead at 6:21 a.m.
Warden Daniel Vasquez read his final statement. "You can be a king or a street sweeper, but everybody dances with the Grim Reaper," it said.
Harris died 14 years after he shot to death two San Diego teenagers so he could use their car for a bank robbery. He admitted taking part in the slayings; his supporters cited his past as an abused child, among other things, as reason he should have been spared.
With Harris' execution, California becomes the 20th state to make use of the death penalty since the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976 allowed states to resume capital punishment. He was the 169th person put to death since the ruling.
Sixteen other states have the death penalty but haven't usedit.
A total of 330 men and women remain on death row in California, and more than 2,500 nationally as of January.
The last person executed in California was police killer Aaron Mitchell, who fought with guards and shouted that he was Jesus Christ as he was strapped into the gas chamber in 1967.
Harris had been scheduled to die just after midnight, but the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco put the execution on hold six hours beforehand, based on a claim that his brother shot one of the teenagers.
It issued three more stays based on a claim that death by gas is cruel and unusual punishment. Then the U.S. Supreme Court ordered no more stays, after earlier issuing an unsigned opinion criticizing "Harris' obvious attempt at manipulation."
"There is no good reason for this abusive delay, which has been compounded by last-minute attempts to manipulate the judicial process," the court said in the 7-2 ruling. As with two previous votes on the gas issue, Justices John Paul Stevens and Harry A. Blackmun dissented.
In the dissent, Stevens wrote, "the barbaric use of cyanide gas in the Holocaust, the development of cyanide agents as chemical weapons, our contemporary understanding of execution by lethal gas, and the development of less cruel methods of execution all demonstrate that execution by cyanide gas is unnecessarily cruel."
U.S. District Judge Marilyn Hall Patel, who had temporarily halted the execution on Saturday, ordered that Harris' execution be videotaped as evidence for the gas issue. A video camera was seen in the death chamber Tuesday.
Before the fourth stay came down, Harris was strapped into the chair by three guards at 3:49 a.m. At 3:51 a.m., the telephone in the witness room rang. A member of Harris' family was heard to say, "Oh, God." He was returned to a holding area before the Supreme Court cleared the way for his execution 21/2 hours later.
The American Civil Liberties Union argued that the gas chamber, used by a diminishing number of states, violates "evolving standards of decency" recognized under the Constitution. California, Arizona and Maryland use gas for executions; Mississippi and North Carolina have gas or lethal injection.
Harris' case previously had come to the U.S. Supreme Court a half-dozen times. He received five execution dates and came within 12 hours of death in 1990 as the case made its way through the courts, becoming a test of several death penalty issues.
According to testimony at his trial, Harris and his brother Danny were looking for a getaway car when they came upon John Mayeski and Michael Baker eating hamburgers in a parking lot. Harris forced the 16-year-olds to drive to a rural area, ordered them out of the car and shot them.
Danny Harris, who took the stand against his brother and received a 31/2-year sentence for kidnapping under a plea bargain, testified that Robert Harris taunted one of the boys to "quit crying and die like a man," then shot them.
Later, prosecutors said, Harris laughed and bragged about the killings.
At the time, Harris was on parole for a 1975 manslaughter conviction.
Baker's father, San Diego Detective Steven Baker, was a witness to the execution. Baker arrested Harris after the robbery in 1978 without knowing that his son had been slain earlier in the day and that Harris was the killer.
Hundreds of death penalty supporters and opponents gathered at the prison to demonstrate. There was some jostling and shouting, but the gathering was peaceful and no arrests were reported.
"I don't hate the guy," said demonstrator Albert Cordaway Jr., whose friend was killed last month in his home town of Stockton. "I'm just taking a stand for the death penalty."
Thirteen-year-old Julie Briggs of Danville and her three teenage sisters took the opposite view.
"I just don't think, morally, you should take human life. Just by killing the person it's not going to make anything better," she said.
Gov. Pete Wilson last week refused to grant clemency. He was unmoved by claims that Harris suffered brain damage from being dropped on his head as a baby; that he was abused and then abandoned at 14; and that he suffered fetal alcohol syndrome, or damage caused by his mother's drinking during pregnancy.
Executions since '76
Here is a breakdown, by state, of executions carried out since the 1976 Supreme Court ruling allowing states to resume use of the death penalty. The list includes 168 men and one woman.
North Carolina: 4
South Carolina: 4