Neighbors forget prison until execution intrudes

April 19, 1992|By Jane Meredith Adams | Jane Meredith Adams,Contributing Writer

SAN QUENTIN VILLAGE, Calif. -- Daily life has a way of obscuring the obvious. People living next to the freeway don't hear the sound of the cars; up in the mountains, they forget to look at the view. And here, next to a 440-acre prison that is home to California's death row, neighbors say they usually don't think about what goes on inside the gate.

But now the state is approaching its first execution in 25 years. The green gas chamber at the San Quentin California state prison has been cleaned and checked. Residents who moved to this village by the prison for its quiet loveliness now find an impending cyanide gas execution intruding on their consciousness.

"Eerie is a good term for it," said Pat Orr, president of the San Quentin Village Homeowners Association. She feels "drumbeats," she said, "a tension that builds."

The tension surfaces in different ways. Some villagers are absorbed in the moral implications of the death penalty, others worry about the impact on property values, and still others say, defensively, that if they are going to be intruded on by the press, they are entitled to charge $1,000 for a parking space.

Convicted double-murderer Robert Alton Harris was scheduled to die at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday, but yesterday a federal judge granted him a 10-day stay under a class-action suit. However, California is appealing the stay. If Harris is executed, his death will open the door for the executions of 327 other inmates.

If the executions begin, Ms. Orr said, "it would be pretty gruesome."

"It's horrible to think this is going on next door, and you can't do anything to intervene," said Richard Mermin, who has tried to rally villagers against the death penalty.

He says residents should be concerned, at the very least, "because the death penalty is a bread-and-butter issue here. It depresses property values, because who wants to be around it?"

As Harris' execution approaches, life has changed in this village on San Francisco Bay where ferry boat captains and crews once lived. Television trucks sporting rooftop satellite dishes have pulled onto tiny Main Street, taking hard-to-find parking spaces. Reporters from San Francisco, about 20 miles south, scurry to interview the locals, who number 68, including 13 children.

And the demonstrators are coming. A 79-year-old Berkeley man who goes by the name Eldred was the first. He is holding a one-man vigil for clemency in his cream 1962 Volvo. Police expect 300 to 500 demonstrators the night of the execution.

Two years ago the village was similarly besieged by reporters and demonstrators who came for the pending execution of Harris. Police in riot gear blocked off traffic, and residents had to plead to gain access. Eleven hours before Harris was to die, he was granted an appeal.

Some villagers have grown sophisticated from the experience. "Many people didn't accommodate the media last time, but this time they are," said one resident who declined to be named. He is renting three parking spaces at $1,000 each the day before the execution.

Across the street, one woman has rented her front lawn and her roof, suitable for a portable satellite dish, for $2,100. Another resident surrendered his house for $2,500.

Villager Michele Barni said she would consider renting space to the press if the money went "to a kids' school or charity for abused children, which is what I think Robert Alton Harris is all about." Harris' defense attorneys have said that his mother's drinking caused him to suffer fetal alcohol syndrome and that he was severely beaten as a child.

Eighty percent of Californians support the death penalty, according to a poll taken last month, and there are certainly supporters here. Donald E. Zubler grew up in the village in the 1920s and '30s when convicts were hanged inside the prison. "It wasn't really frightening," he said.

He feels the same way about the gas chamber. After the first death, he said, "then it becomes old-hat."

Still, the village would prefer to remain a world apart from the prison. Just behind Main Street is a row of prison-owned houses for prison employees. There is little fraternizing between the neighbors.

"They all hate us," said Linda Hallen, program director at The House at San Quentin, a center for friends and families of inmates. "They think everything should be mellow in their quiet little town. They just didn't notice there's a prison 100 feet away."

Roger Simon is on vacation. His column will resume May 6.

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