Condemned killer Robert Alton Harris filed a last-ditch appeal Monday with the federal court in San Diego as Mother Teresa made a seemingly unsuccessful plea for his life in a telephone call to Gov. George Deukmejian.
After the five-minute phone call with the Nobel Prize-winning missionary, the governor issued a statement in Sacramento emphasizing that he has a responsibility to carry out the law under which Harris was sentenced to die. The execution, which would be the first in California in 23 years, is scheduled for next Tuesday.
Speaking from India, Mother Teresa prevailed on the governor to "do what Jesus would do if Jesus was in your position," according to an intermediary who spoke with the nun shortly after the call. But Deukmejian told her that the public has decided that, in California, the death penalty is a "just and appropriate" punishment for murderers.
In Harris' legal papers, the first step in the last legal procedure Harris has left, his San Diego attorneys contended that new psychiatric evidence shows that Harris suffered from brain damage that played a part in the killings. It would be unfair to execute Harris because that damage was not taken into account when he was sentenced, the lawyers said.
U. S. District Judge William B. Enright in San Diego, who initially has handled--and rejected--Harris' previous appeals in federal court, set a hearing in the case for Wednesday. The new appeal essentially sets forth the same arguments that failed to persuade the California Supreme Court earlier this month to spare the 37-year-old Harris.
Harris' case has progressed further through the court system than that of any of the other more than 270 prisoners on Death Row in California.
The U.S. Supreme Court has rejected Harris' appeals four times, most recently on Jan. 16. The California Supreme Court upheld Harris' death sentence in 1981.
On March 16, the state Supreme Court turned down an appeal Harris' San Diego attorneys, Charles M. Sevilla and Michael McCabe, had filed Jan. 5. The justices unanimously declined to grant a formal hearing to Harris to review his claim that new psychiatric evidence indicates he suffers brain damage that affected his behavior in the 1978 killings.
That rejection left Harris with only two avenues for relief, a grant of clemency from Deukmejian or a reprieve from the federal courts.
Last Tuesday, however, Harris retracted his application for a clemency hearing before Deukmejian. In a letter to the governor, Harris said he had decided not to seek clemency because he did not think he could get a fair hearing from Deukmejian, a longtime advocate of capital punishment.
Last Wednesday, Deukmejian canceled the hearing. That same day, Mother Teresa, working through a Jesuit seminarian from Berkeley, announced that she intended to call the governor to personally plead for Harris' life.
After Monday's call, John Dear, the Berkeley seminarian, described Mother Teresa as "very concerned" and "totally absorbed in praying for the governor to stop the execution."
Deukmejian was alone in his office when he spoke to the Roman Catholic nun, who won the Nobel Prize in 1979 for her work on behalf of the sick and dying in Calcutta's slums.
Afterward, Deukmejian issued a statement saying that Mother Teresa expressed her views based on religious grounds.
According to the statement, Deukmejian told Mother Teresa said that capital punishment "has been fully debated for many years in California" and that the public has voted on two occasions "that the death penalty is a just and appropriate punishment for those who willfully murder another person."
The governor said he concluded the call "by expressing his respect for Mother Teresa and her work, and thanked her for her views."
Mother Teresa met Harris at San Quentin during a visit to Death Row inmates in 1987. During the visit, she gave him a medal to wear and promised to pray for him.
In turning Monday to the federal court in San Diego, Harris' lawyers said that, although there no longer is any debate over what Harris did, it would be unjust to kill him because it was not clear that he had a fair chance to explain why he killed the two boys, Michael Baker and John Mayeski.
Harris killed both 16-year-old boys after stealing their car for use in a bank robbery. He abducted them from a fast-food parking lot where they had just ordered lunch. Later, he ate their half-finished hamburgers.
What neither Harris nor his lawyers knew in 1979, when he was sentenced, was that he suffered from a variety of mental disorders, his attorneys said in the papers they filed Monday. Among them, they said, was post-traumatic stress disorder, the condition usually associated with combat.
No one knew about the disorders because the psychologists who tested Harris in 1979 didn't do a good job, his lawyers said Monday. And, in 1979, psychiatrists didn't even recognize a condition like post-traumatic stress disorder.