SAN FRANCISCO — Robert Alton Harris was eulogized as a "loving," though damaged man who regretted the pain brought by his crimes during a memorial service attended by about 300 death penalty abolitionists Friday in an ornate Episcopal church.
Knowing that other convicted murderers could meet the same fate as Harris, many in the crowd left after the lunch-hour service to return to their law offices and work on appeals for other Death Row inmates.
"What happened to Robert probably is going to happen to hundreds of others," said the Rev. Robert W. Cromey, rector at Trinity Church.
Speakers told of Harris' humor, his good cheer in prison, and his nicknames. One woman said she called him Teddy Bear. Together, the eulogies sought to portray the prisoner executed Tuesday at San Quentin as very different from the Harris who coldly killed two 16-year-old boys in 1978.
Each speaker also took the opportunity to call for an end to the death penalty.
"We are more committed to this fight than ever before," said the Rev. Margaret Harrell, who ministers to several Death Row inmates at San Quentin.
Harris, 39, was "damaged, to be sure," said his close friend, writer Michael Kroll. But he also was "loving and loved and always concerned for those around him."
"Even from inside the monstrous beast, that gas chamber, he looked around and said, 'It's all right,' " said Kroll, who witnessed the execution at Harris' request.
Kroll, long a death penalty abolitionist, met Harris while working on articles about Death Row several years ago, and had been a regular visitor to the condemned man.
In his final days, Kroll said, Harris again told of his wish "to do something to relieve the pain of the families of John Mayeski and Michael Baker," the teen-age boys he murdered.
"He wanted to apologize," Kroll said.
The writer added that in one of his final visits, Harris extended thanks to his lawyers for doing all they could to win him a reprieve. Finally, Kroll said, Harris wanted his younger brother, Daniel, to know that he forgave him.
Daniel Harris, who lives in Oroville, helped his brother kidnap the boys and was present when they were shot and killed. Later, Daniel testified against his brother.
"What he (Robert) did was wrong," said Randy Harris, an older brother by 13 months who spoke Friday for the family. "Nobody can say that it wasn't. But he did not have the ability to know"--a reference to Harris' reported brain damage and other mental impairment.
Randy Harris, three sisters and several nieces and nephews were at the funeral. There are seven surviving siblings of the Harris family, which had lived in the Visalia area after arriving in California in the 1950s.
Randy, the closest to Robert when the two were children, remained in touch while Harris was in jail during 14 years of appeals. Some family members remained supportive, but a few distanced themselves.
"I just don't want the embarrassment," said one brother, a schoolteacher, when asked to talk about his brother last month.
Michael Laurence, 32, the American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who helped orchestrate Harris' legal strategy over the past two years, and who represents several other Death Row clients, left after the service for his law office. He plans to take no extra time off, despite keeping a grueling schedule in the final weeks of Harris' life.
"I want to make sure no one else has to die by lethal gas."