Harris execution order shows Supreme Court flexing muscle Case forecasts streamlining of appeals process.

April 22, 1992|By Knight-Ridder Newspapers

SAN QUENTIN, Calif. -- From the chaos and emotion of one murderer's execution, a message rang clear: An impatient U.S. Supreme Court spanked a renegade federal appeals court, laying the groundwork to streamline an appeals process that has frustrated nearly everyone.

For nine hours, fax machines in San Francisco and Washington waged a legal battle between the high court and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the life of double murderer Robert Alton Harris. About 5:30 a.m. yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court finally flexed unprecedented political muscle by overriding the last of four stays that had given Harris another six hours of life.

Harris' execution came at dawn as the high court told the appeals court: "No further stays of Robert Alton Harris' execution shall be entered by the federal courts except upon order of this court."

Harris was dead at 6:21 a.m. EDT -- 36 minutes after the Supreme Court laid down the law.

To many, Harris' 13-year legal fight had become another symbol of a court system run amok, death rows filled with prisoners whose legal petitions mock capital punishment. Harris' case went through 75 state and federal court reviews, including four separate appeals that reached the Supreme Court.

Yesterday, politics -- not the law -- was the theme as legal scholars and lay people reacted to the execution and the frenzied all-night legal ballet that led to it.

"The Supreme Court was tired of having its nose rubbed over the death penalty issue," said Frank Zimring, director of the Earl Warren Legal Institute at Boalt Hall, the law school at the University of California, Berkeley.

"It doesn't want to be the court of death penalty appeals. It doesn't want to be politically connected with the issue. It doesn't want blood on its hands."

"To my knowledge, [the court's strongly worded rebuke] has never happened before," said University of North Carolina law Professor Jack Boger, who handled death penalty cases for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund from 1978 to 1990.

"It's a more authoritarian act by the Supreme Court than I've ever seen."

Some defense attorneys and legal scholars fear that courts now will turn a deaf ear in capital appeals -- no matter how worthy the argument -- knowing they will stand no chance at the highest level. Under such a climate, they said, it could be only a matter of time before an innocent person is executed.

Many legal experts argue that a lengthy process of federal review is necessary to uncover injustices. Over the past 15 years, federal judges have found serious constitutional errors in nearly 40 percent of all death penalty cases brought before them.

But to the families of crime victims, most prosecutors and a majority of Supreme Court justices, the system encourages an irrational maze of piecemeal, chaotic and seemingly endless appeals.

Where the lawyers left off, the politicians took over yesterday. Within hours of Harris' execution, Republican Assemblyman Thomas McClintock said he would re-introduce legislation to replace the gas chamber with lethal injection, now favored by 22 states. Similar bills died in 1987 and 1988. California is one of only three states that still use gas, which is considered too cruel by some scientists to be used on laboratory animals.

State Sen. Quentin Kopp said he would introduce a bill that allows death row inmates a choice between gas and injection.

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