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Wilson Hears Pleas, Weighs Fate of Harris : Capital punishment: Governor takes emotional testimony from victims' families, death penalty foes.

April 16, 1992|DAN MORAIN and ALAN ABRAHAMSON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SACRAMENTO — For the first time in a quarter-century, a California governor began Wednesday to weigh the fate of a man facing death by lethal gas, hearing a plea for mercy from Robert Alton Harris' few supporters and a grieving mother's cry that justice finally be done.

After separate private meetings, Gov. Pete Wilson sent both sides away without a hint of how he will rule on the deeply personal and politically sensitive question of whether to allow Tuesday's execution to take place. A decision on clemency was expected as early as today.

In emotional news conferences afterward, family members of the victims, Harris' sister and lawyers described passionate, sometimes tearful sessions in which a somber governor asked questions that made it clear he had spent long hours reviewing the record.

"We need a finality. We've had enough," said Sharron Mankins, mother of Michael Baker, a 16-year-old boy who was murdered with his best friend, John Mayeski, on July 5, 1978, at an isolated wash near Miramar Reservoir in San Diego.

She was one of five family members to address the governor. In all, 12 members of the Baker and Mayeski families came to the Capitol to urge Wilson not to block what would be California's first execution in 25 years. Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Brian Michaels of San Diego recounted the facts of the crime for Wilson.

Harris, 39, was represented by three lawyers and three leading experts on child abuse, brain damage and fetal alcohol syndrome. The experts contended that Harris could not have planned the crime because he suffers from brain damage caused by his mother's drinking while she carried him. A sister, Brenda Harris, also spoke.

"I asked Gov. Wilson to please spare my brother because we love Robbie and we don't want him to die," Brenda Harris said after meeting with Wilson. "He means everything to us. . . . He's where he can't hurt anybody."

Los Angeles attorney Howard I. Friedman, Harris' lead lawyer in the hearing, characterized his presentation as an "explanation of facts and science," focusing on fetal alcohol syndrome. The governor had no questions for Harris' sister, but did ask about the claim that Harris has brain damage caused by his mother's alcohol consumption.

Harris, 39 and balding, killed not just the teen-agers, but also beat a man to death in Imperial County in 1975. But knowing that Wilson has sought to make the plight of children a cornerstone of his Administration, Harris' defense tried to tug at his heartstrings by telling the story of "Robbie," the unloved and badly mistreated little boy.

During his presentation to Wilson and at the news conference afterward, Friedman displayed a poster-sized portrait of an 8-year-old Harris, beaming and wearing a bow tie, alongside medical reports that suggest beatings he absorbed at the hands of his abusive father.

In a written statement to Wilson, Friedman recounted how young Harris one day fell, broke a tooth, and bloodied his face. When he ran crying to his alcoholic mother, she turned him away with words that would sting worse than any slap: "Now you look like the idiot you are."

Friedman's chief argument is that because Harris suffers from fetal alcohol syndrome, he cannot learn from past mistakes, is impulsive and is incapable of planning a crime or understanding the consequences.

"This is no Twinkie defense," Friedman declared, citing some 2,500 academic studies on the topic since 1973, when it was first identified--by one of Harris' medical experts, Kenneth L. Jones. "It is not pop psychology. It is as real as anything can be in terms of creating organic brain damage."

But prosecutor Michaels homed in on evidence suggesting that Harris was far from impulsive. As the victim's sisters wept, Michaels recounted for reporters the extensive planning that led to the crimes.

In May or June, 1978, Harris set out to rob a bank, Michaels said. He and a younger brother, Daniel, stole guns in Visalia, and drove to San Diego. There, they cased a bank, and took target practice as if they were heading into combat.

On the morning of July 5, 1978, needing a getaway car, Robert Harris pulled a gun and kidnaped Mayeski and Baker outside a Jack-in-the-Box. The boys had bought lunch and were planning to spend the day fishing. But Harris told them to drive to the reservoir. After telling him that he would not harm them and to walk away, he shot each four times, Michaels said.

"These two boys were the victims and their families are the victim survivors," Michaels said, poster-sized photos of the teen-agers to his right. Behind him, shoulder to shoulder, stood the boys' brothers, sisters and surviving parents.

Discounting claims that Harris suffers from fetal alcohol syndrome, Michaels said Harris has no problems "other than learning disabilities," and labeled him a "psychopath."

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