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COLUMN ONE : A Precise Procedure for Killing : The schedule for Robert Alton Harris' final days is designed to make brutal killers meek and malleable for their execution. Thirty-four pages spell out the ritual in chilling detail.

April 11, 1992|DAN MORAIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN QUENTIN — It's called Procedure 769, a blandly bureaucratic and mundane title that belies its grim content. In precise detail, over 34 pages, the document describes how the people of California will carry out their first execution by lethal gas in a generation.

Honed by years of dry runs, Procedure 769 sets out the ritual of death and enumerates everything the execution team could conceivably need. Six spare light bulbs, two heart monitors, three sets of rubber gloves, eight square feet of cheesecloth. Even scissors, to cut the cloth in the shape of a sack to hold the sodium cyanide pellets.

In just over a week, barring a stay, Procedure 769 will be used to tick down the final hours in the life of Robert Alton Harris. His last meal--he requested Kentucky Fried Chicken, two pizzas without anchovies, Pepsi and jelly beans--must be served at 6 p.m. The spiritual adviser will arrive by 7. Sodas, a television, a radio, cigarettes all must be available for the inmate's asking.

As the countdown to the 12:01 a.m. execution reaches 30 minutes, guards will call the phone company for the accurate time, and set the two clocks outside the death chamber. At 15 minutes, officers will take the prisoner's clothes, and hand him his execution uniform: a pair of blue jeans, a blue shirt, a heart monitor, nothing more.

The ritual is all part of what criminal justice professor Robert Johnson of American University in Washington calls the "disturbingly, even chillingly, dispassionate" process of modern executions.

In his 1990 book, "Death Work," Johnson writes that the overriding goal of officers who must carry out death sentences is that the execution "go off without any human feeling." After a last meal, a last visit, a final cigarette, perhaps, finally, some tears, inmates usually become resigned to their fates. Brutal killers become meek and malleable for their final walks.

"The irony," Johnson said in an interview, "is that the more professional you make this process the more coldblooded it becomes."

Of course, it does not always go so smoothly. Electric chairs have misfired. In states that use lethal injections, technicians have had to grope for usable veins. A few inmates fight futilely. This week, Don Eugene Harding, who killed seven times, raised his middle finger as he sat in Arizona's gas chamber, and became the first person that state had executed in 29 years.

But for the most part, the ritualized process works. In the annals of San Quentin, only a handful of the 194 people executed by lethal gas have put up struggles. A particularly skinny man, Leanderess Riley, managed to squirm free of the restraints in 1953. Guards strapped him back in, tighter. Another murderer tried to beat the executioner by slitting his throat just before his 1956 date with death. A physician hastily stopped the bleeding and the inmate was executed.

The Harris execution will be carried out by a team of San Quentin guards, all of them volunteers, all with only a small personal role to fill. With the jobs spread around there is no single executioner, no individual who must endure responsibility for carrying out the state's ultimate sanction.

Warden Daniel Vasquez, a veteran of 30 years in the prison system, and the one execution team member who is publicly known, arrived at San Quentin in 1984 to find no written plan for carrying out executions. He brought in retired execution team members, toured other states that have carried out executions, and pieced together Procedure 769.

Without specific, step-by-step directions, an execution would "lack the somber (tone) that the ritual requires," Vasquez said. The key to the plan is that the officers are shielded from the emotion of the event.

"There is one person who is not to survive the ritual of the execution, and that is the condemned inmate," says Vasquez. "We have to survive. We have to go back to our families."

The last state-sanctioned killing at this aging bastille on San Francisco Bay came on April 12, 1967, and it was one to remember. After Gov. Ronald Reagan refused a last plea for clemency, Aaron Mitchell seemed to crack. He slit his wrists and ranted through the night that he was Jesus Christ. As he died, the murderer of a Sacramento police officer again mouthed the words, "I am Jesus Christ."

Through the middle 1960s, executions were common on Friday mornings at San Quentin. The ritual dictated 10 a.m., which gave courts a last hour to meet on any last-minute appeals. No one around San Quentin is sure why Friday was execution day, though it is noted that wardens often would leave for long weekends after their duties were done.

There was so little outside interest in most executions that the warden occasionally had to ask his underlings to serve among the 12 official witnesses required by state law. Officers did not covet the duty. But Black Fridays were part of the routine, says Louis (Red) Nelson, 82, a former warden who witnessed "countless" executions.

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