SACRAMENTO — Ronald Bell's nightmares have not recurred in years. His period of mourning ended long ago. But he will be haunted always by the gruesome images of his father's death 23 years ago.
Bell is the son of Aaron Mitchell, the last person executed in California, and he knows more than any son should about his father's death. An artist was there to sketch it. Reporters detailed the final gasps. What Bell doesn't know about his father's death, he can readily conjure.
At age 39, Bell is two years older than his father was when he was walked, moaning, into San Quentin's gas chamber on April 12, 1967. Bell wasn't there, but he can imagine what it must have felt like to be strapped to a chair in the small steel chamber, waiting for cyanide pellets to fall into a basin of acid, creating the lethal gas.
What strikes Bell as especially unfair about the death penalty is that a man isn't given "a fighting chance." As if envisioning himself inside the chamber, he said: "Let me run for it. Don't strap me in a chair and give me gas so I defecate all over myself, with a bunch of spectators who I can see watching me die."
With California preparing to execute convicted killer Robert Alton Harris on April 3, memories of his father's final days flood back, and Bell is finding himself more determined than ever to pursue what has become his mission.
"I want to get involved in abolishing capital punishment nationwide, to try to use my father's death in a positive way," he said.
Bell came to that decision after 12 years as an actor in Los Angeles. He landed parts, mostly small ones, in television episodes, movies and theater productions. He also wrote a play about his father's final days and performed the part of his father in a production put on by the Inglewood Theater.
But unable to strike it big, he returned to his hometown of Sacramento in 1987, with plans to attend UC Davis. He's been taking classes on and off since then. Eventually, he said he intends to go to law school, become a lawyer and defend death penalty cases.
Encouraged by San Francisco defense attorney Robert Bryan, chairman of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, Bell is taking a role in the movement to end capital punishment.
Bryan met Bell as the lawyer researched Mitchell's case two years ago for an event sponsored by Amnesty International. Bryan asked Bell to put his acting to use by playing his father in mock trials in which Bryan and a prosecutor give closing arguments. In two trials so far, jurors picked from the audiences reached verdicts of life in prison, rather than death.
"My father is dead," Bell said. "It is moot."
There is, however, a point to the exercise. "I want people to hear Aaron Mitchell's side of the story. . . . I want them to leave with a question mark: Was this man executed wrongfully? Was he rushed to the gas chamber?"
Mitchell's path to the gas chamber began on Feb. 15, 1963. A thief in need of money, he had spent the day drinking vodka and sawing off a shotgun. That night, he went to the Stadium Club, not far from his home, and robbed it of $321.
Police arrived as he was leaving. Mitchell disarmed one officer and using him as a shield, stepped outside. Officer Arnold Gamble, revolver drawn, was on the other side of the door. Guns blazed. Gamble died. Mitchell ran 2 1/2 blocks before collapsing. He had been shot seven times.
Much has been written of the families of murder victims, how they never forget their losses. Such is the case with Gamble's family. His widow told The Times five years ago that the memories are so painful that she would not discuss it.
Arnold Gamble Jr., 14 when his father was killed, told The Times then that opponents of capital punishment don't understand the pain of the families of murder victims.
"Have they ever known how painful it is? It's changed all of our lives, and 22 years later, we're still changed. . . . The victims are the ones who are left. They can never get away from it," Gamble said.
For his part, Bell called the crime "stupid," and said his father "was a fool." But he also believes his father was executed because he was black and that he was the victim of racism.
"In 1967," Bell said, "racism was rampant." Referring to his stepmother, he added: "The fact that my father was married to a white lady, a beautiful white lady, with flaming red hair, didn't help. He drove a white convertible Cadillac. He was just in the wrong time."
The execution is all the more bitter for Bell because it turned out to be the last in California. Courts in California and across the country, besieged by legal arguments against capital punishment, imposed a moratorium on executions shortly after Mitchell's death. And in 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down all death penalty laws.