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Vigil Marks Anniversary of Harris Execution : Demonstration: Opponents of death penalty gather a year after murderer of two youths died in gas chamber.

April 22, 1993|JODI WILGOREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

IRVINE — At a somber vigil marking the first anniversary of the execution of murderer Robert Alton Harris, about 75 Orange County residents opposed to capital punishment confronted the possibility Wednesday evening that they could be victims of homicide.

"Should I die as a result of a violent crime," reads the "declaration of life" that vigil participants signed, "I plead, pray and request that the person or persons found guilty of homicide for my killing not be subject or put in jeopardy of the death penalty under any circumstances."

Wednesday's vigil, with emotional speeches against capital punishment, was the first major event of Death Penalty Focus-Orange County, a coalition of lawyers, religious leaders and political activists. The group formed last year to protest the execution of Harris, the San Diego man who kidnaped and killed two teen-agers in 1978 while stealing their car to get away from a bank robbery.

Others rallied at 6:30 a.m. Wednesday outside San Quentin state prison, where Harris was executed, and simultaneous "declaration of life" ceremonies took place in San Francisco and Pasadena Wednesday evening.

"All life is sacred--all life. It doesn't matter if someone has taken someone else's life," Sister Mary Anne Vincent, whose brother was murdered in New Jersey in 1982, told the crowd at St. John Neumann Church. "God is the author of life. Let God take care of it."

Deputy Public Defender Denise Gragg, 36, who organized the vigil, said she was spurred to activism because Harris was the first person put to death in California in 25 years.

"For all of us baby boomers who were against the death penalty it was a real turning point," she said. "We were people who were philosophically opposed to the death penalty but had never been around when it happened."

Over the past year, the 500-member Orange County chapter of the statewide group Death Penalty Focus has had monthly meetings devoted to educating the community about capital punishment.

Pat Clark, director of the statewide group, said having a chapter in conservative Orange County is "especially exciting" and "really has inspired the rest of the organization" to recruit folks in Santa Cruz and Santa Barbara.

Members of the local group said they oppose the death penalty for spiritual and practical reasons. They contend that there is no evidence of the death penalty deterring crime and call the punishment "barbaric."

"I'm a right-to-lifer, in the full context of the meaning of that," said John McGrath, 65, of Newport Beach, who is active in local Catholic and liberal causes. "I have a respect for life and I find that this business of the death penalty is anti to that."

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