From lethargy to urgency on the execution watch

April 22, 1992|By Gregg Zoroya | Gregg Zoroya,Orange County Register

SAN QUENTIN, CALIF — SAN QUENTIN, Calif. -- It is the dead of night, minutes before 3 a.m., when prison officials suddenly roust 18 media witnesses from their lethargy of waiting hours for distant high courts to rule on Robert Alton Harris' fate.

The lights of Richmond-San Rafael Bridge dance on the waters of San Francisco Bay -- on which San Quentin State Prison stands -- as the seven women and 11 men are driven about 200 yards to the gas chamber witness room.

A desperate urgency is in the air. Prison officials are racing against the odds of another stay of execution. Now reporters are shivering out of cold and apprehension at 3:11 a.m. as they are herded into an annex just yards from the death chamber and searched for hidden cameras and recording devices.

For all the rushing, there is a 21-minute delay in rounding up other observers, and this will momentarily spare Harris' life.

At 3:43 a.m., movement toward the death chamber begins.

The area is surprisingly confined, smaller than a two-car garage, with a 20-foot ceiling. A dank, antiseptic smell is in the air. Shades are drawn over windows. The floor is green linoleum; concrete walls are brown.

Witnesses enter through an east door, and across the room is the octagonal steel death chamber. Its interior is apple green, and its lighting seems to nearly glow in contrast to the dim lighting in the witness area.

The two steel chairs with their broad black straps are empty for the moment.

More than 50 witnesses form two concentric circles. An inner group, including state Attorney General Dan Lungren, stands against a railing inches from the chamber glass. A uniformed guard operates a video camera on a tripod 20 inches from the chamber at precisely where Harris' face can be taped.

Also in the inner circle is Steven Baker, a San Diego police officer whose 16-year-old son, Michael, was told by Harris to "quit crying and die like a man" before he was shot to death in 1978.

In the outer circle is Harris' brother Randall, arms crossed tightly over his chest. Also there is a friend, Michael Kroll. Nearby, Michael Baker's mother, Sharron Mankins, holds hands with Laura Mankins, the boy's stepsister, and Marilyn Clark,sister of John Mayeski, Harris' other teen-age victim in 1978.

At 3:49 a.m. Harris, wearing denim slacks and a blue work shirt, is led into the chamber. He appears fit and healthy, though his eyes look tired. His long dark hair is pulled into a ponytail behind his head.

Three heavyset guards strap him in. One clasps thick forearms over Harris' chest from behind to restrict him. The condemned man is compliant, however. He nods to the reporters he can see through the glass to his right and mouths the words, "I'm ready." He gives the thumbs up with his left hand.

But the telephone rings at 3:51 a.m. Some members of the victims' families remark, "Oh my God."

It is another stay. Although 10 minutes will pass before guards enter to remove Harris from the chair, his mood is noticeably altered. He knows this will not be the time.

Witnesses are led out. Reporters are whisked back by van to the media center. The waiting begins again.

At 5:36 a.m. this latest and last stay is lifted, and witnesses are summoned once more.

By 6:02 Harris is once again strapped into one of the two death chairs, heart monitor in place. Now he seems more resigned. Grimmer.

"It's all right," he mouths to the guard behind the video camera and seems to say something similar to his family to his left. Harris throws a quick glance over his right shoulder toward Steven Baker and appears to say "I'm sorry."

Seconds later, the cyanide is released.

Harris is ready for it.

He takes several deep breaths, head tilted down in earnest determination. Suddenly, his eyes roll back, and his head slowly follows them, lolling straight back until it hangs over the back of the chair. He may be unconscious at this point. It is 6:04.

But his body continues to react to the poisonous gas.

While his family clusters together off to Harris' right, he begins to die. It is not a violent death. There is no thrashing or slamming of limbs.

Instead, there are small movements of his head and mouth. Between intervals of several seconds, there are episodes of gasping. His head convulses downward. At one point the lips draw back as if in a grimace. At another point the mouth is open and sucking for oxygen.

The head is slumped forrward during this time, chin to chest. The mouth, finally passive and listless, begins to drool.

Steven Baker stares intently. Behind him, his ex-wife chats with her daughter and smiles occasionally.

The gaggle of reporters strain to view and chronicle every last twitch.

At 6:08 and 55 seconds, Harris' head lurches slightly and again a gasp. At 6:09:30 another movement, and 26 seconds later, and 31 seconds after that. He lurches one last time at 6:11 and 34 seconds.

He does not move again.

Ten minutes later, through a metal slot in a rivet-studded steel door adjacent to the chamber, someone hands a guard a pronouncement from Warden Daniel Vasquez. Harris is pronounced dead at 6:21 a.m. "as prescribed by the laws of California."

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