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Witness to the Execution: A Macabre, Surreal Event

April 22, 1992|DAN MORAIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN QUENTIN — The hiss of flowing liquid was our sign that the execution of Robert Alton Harris had begun.

Sulfuric acid filled the two vats beneath his seat. He peered down, between his knees, into his personal abyss. In seconds, he knew, cyanide pellets would drop, react with the acid, and the gas would rise. This was it--he was a dead man.

Then, a phone beside the gas chamber rang twice. The sound was loud enough that Harris must have heard it.

"Oh, God," a voice said from where the families of Harris' murder victims stood. It took me a minute to figure out what was happening. It was a stay--the fourth of this long night, the night on which the state of California was to resume executions after a 25-year break.

We, the 48 official witnesses to the execution of Robert Harris, soon learned what the delay was about. But inside the gas chamber, the antihero of this drama seemed puzzled. He sat in the metal chair, facing away from us, but aware that all eyes were trained on him.

He looked around, the picture of confusion and nerves. His arms were strapped down, but he tried to motion with his hands and seemed to mouth a plea: "Let's pull it."

Time seemed to slow, even for the witnesses. My mouth turned dry, a symptom of stress. Air could be heard blowing through ducts in this half-century-old building inside San Quentin, next to North Block, downstairs from Death Row.

There were the sounds of an old prison: the rattling of keys, the opening of doors, footsteps on the dark green, slickly waxed tile floor of the gas chamber witness room.

The prison describes the color of the gas chamber as "apple green." In truth, it's the green of an apple no one on this Earth has tasted. At 4 a.m. Tuesday morning, with the lights inside shining brightly on Robert Harris, the green looked almost fluorescent.

The scene was all the more striking because the three bulbs above us in the witness area were so dim and the beige walls so drab.

By all rights, Harris surely realized, this contraption installed 52 years ago should have done its business by now. A sad smile came over his face. He looked up and down, wrinkled his brow, and glanced over his left shoulder to where his older brother, Randy, stood. He looked then at a friend, a guard, who stood braced against the waist-high rail that keeps the witnesses a step back from this riveted death chamber.

As we watched, Harris raised his brow quizzically, as if to ask: What gives? He rolled his eyes and swiveled his head to look out the window to the right, toward a friendly face. With a look of futility he said, "I can't move."

Finally, the sounds of flushing and machinery whirring were heard again. The vats of sulfuric acid beneath Harris were being pumped empty--made safe against an accidental triggering of the gas. That done, guards opened the chamber door.

He was back from the dead. The guards unleashed Harris and walked him back to a nearby cell, to wait for his death to start all over again.

In the ghoulish history of the San Quentin gas chamber, no one had ever been removed alive.

Sharron Mankins, the mother of one of the teen-age boys Harris murdered almost 14 years ago, held a tissue and wept, without a sound.

In all, 48 official witnesses, family members and friends watched this macabre and surreal scene. I was one of 18 journalists. I had taken the assignment because I was convinced that in a state where political careers rise and fall on the death penalty issue, and where almost everyone has an opinion about it, newspapers have an obligation to report on it completely. That means this last, violent, grim step. I still hold fast to that view. That said, I won't view another.

We knew through most of the day Monday that attorneys were exchanging legal volleys, Harris winning some points to stay alive, the state of California winning some others to keep the execution almost on schedule.

Finally, Tip Kindel, the state Department of Corrections spokesman, turned solemn and announced to us that all stays had been lifted. A few minutes past 3 a.m., the journalists piled into aging prison buses and rode through the inner gates toward the gas chamber. One bus rammed against a post.

"Keep going! Keep going!" the senior officer directed. The damaged state property would wait. The premium is on speed--before a new stay can be issued.

We were hustled into an employee lounge and searched. Each of us was handed a single No. 2 pencil and a pad of white legal sized paper--the only note-taking tools allowed.

As we filed into the room that contains the gas chamber, we saw the witnesses invited by the condemned against one wall. His older brother, Randy, close friend Michael Kroll, and three other friends were there.

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