WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court refused Monday afternoon to lift a federal judge's order that blocked today's scheduled 3 a.m. execution of Robert Alton Harris, who would have been the first murderer to die in California's gas chamber in 23 years.
The Supreme Court ruling will delay his execution for weeks, and possibly months, state officials said. It ensures Harris a new hearing in federal court but does not mean that he is entitled to a new trial on his guilt.
"Oh, thanks," Harris said when informed of the news, San Quentin prison officials said. His sister and two other relatives were visiting at the time and the family embraced each other, an attorney for Harris said.
In a setback for the state's attorneys, the Supreme Court justices on a 6-3 vote ruled that Harris' case must go back to a federal appeals court in San Francisco for arguments over whether Harris had "competent" psychiatric assistance at his trial 11 years ago.
Harris, 37, was convicted of the 1978 murders of John Mayeski and Michael Baker, both 16. The two San Diego teen-agers were kidnaped from a fast-food restaurant and then shot by Harris so he could use their car to rob a bank. In early 1979, Harris was convicted and sentenced to death.
Two years later, the state Supreme Court upheld the death verdict--one of only four death sentences the court affirmed while Rose Elizabeth Bird was chief justice. Subsequent appeals by Harris were rejected, four times each by the California and U.S. Supreme Courts.
The execution had been stayed Friday by Judge John T. Noonan of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco after a final plea by Harris' lawyers.
They contended that new mental evaluations found evidence of brain damage that psychiatrists failed to detect before Harris' murder trial. If the mental disorder indicated that he killed based on irrational impulse rather than premediation, jurors may have been persuaded not to return a death sentence, Harris' attorneys argued. That specific point was not raised in earlier appeals.
Last Wednesday, U.S. District Judge William B. Enright of San Diego rejected those and other claims and refused to postpone the execution.
But on Friday, Noonan ruled that Harris should get more time to press his claim. Under a 1985 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, defendants are entitled by the Constitution to competent psychiatric help when their mental condition is at issue, Noonan said.
On Saturday, state lawyers filed a 40-page motion with the high court arguing that Noonan's stay should be lifted because of fundamental errors in his ruling.
In the motion, Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp argued that the courts should not "second-guess" the psychiatric experts who examined Harris 12 years ago. Also, the 1985 Supreme Court ruling should not be applied to Harris, who was tried six years before that ruling was issued, the state argued.
As a small crowd gathered Monday outside the San Quentin gates and Harris received a final visit from his family, the Supreme Court justices gave no indication how or when they would rule. But at 3:10 p.m., the clerk issued a brief order on behalf of the court:
"The application of the attorney general of California to vacate the (appeals court) order, dated March 30, 1990, staying the execution of sentence of death, presented to Justice (Sandra Day) O'Connor and by her referred to the court, is denied."
Voting with O'Connor to leave the stay intact were Justices William J. Brennan Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Byron R. White, Harry A. Blackmun and John Paul Stevens.
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony M. Kennedy voted to overturn Noonan's order and to allow the execution to proceed as planned.
The decision was cheered by anti-death-penalty protesters outside the prison where Harris has been held on Death Row a few floors above the long-idle gas chamber.
Survivors of Harris' two teen-age victims were disappointed.
"Hopefully, one day someone will just waste (Harris) in prison or something," said Linda Herring, an Escondido homemaker and sister of victim Michael Baker. "A criminal against a criminal. Obviously, the good people don't take care of the good people anymore."
Edward Condon Jr., 27, Mayeski's second cousin and a childhood friend, said from his Rancho Cucamonga home, "For the Supreme Court, it's just another name, just another murder. I don't believe they feel the full impact of their judgment."
In Sacramento, Gov. George Deukmejian, who as a state senator wrote the death penalty law under which Harris was sentenced, reacted angrily to the court action.
"Still no resolution, still no justice--just delay, delay and more delays," Deukmejian complained. "The facts in this case are not in dispute."
Van de Kamp, a Democratic candidate for governor, expressed sympathy for the families of Harris' murder victims. "The friends and family of the boys who were murdered have to relive this case every time it comes up for another court hearing," Van de Kamp said.