SAN FRANCISCO — A videotape of the 1992 execution of Robert Alton Harris, prepared for a lawsuit challenging the use of the gas chamber but never shown in court, has been destroyed at a judge's order, court records show.
Newly unsealed documents in federal court disclose that the tape was destroyed after state lawyers agreed that they would not offer any new witnesses' testimony about executions if the gas chamber suit is retried.
That agreement means "we would not need the videotape to show what happened to Robert Harris," said Michael Laurence, lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed the suit on behalf of Death Row prisoners.
Harris consented to the taping but asked his lawyers to "do everything (they) could to avoid pain to his family" by preventing the tape from becoming public, Laurence said. If it had been shown in court, Laurence said, "we probably could not control its dissemination" to the news media.
Laurence added that as far as he knows, the tape stayed in the court's vault and was never shown.
The court documents include U.S. District Judge Marilyn Hall Patel's Jan. 14 order to destroy the tape and a statement by Richard Wieking, clerk of the court, that he carried out the order Jan. 15.
A lawyer who once represented a television station seeking to film Harris' execution criticized the destruction of the tape.
"It's the only videotape of an American execution ever," said William Bennett Turner, who represented San Francisco station KQED in an unsuccessful 1992 suit to allow cameras into the execution chamber. "I don't understand the reasons for its destruction."
No television station or other news organization sought access to the court videotape.
Harris was executed in the San Quentin gas chamber in April, 1992, for the 1978 murders of two San Diego teen-agers. It was California's first execution since 1967.
Over the state's objections, Patel ordered the execution videotaped for possible use as evidence in the ACLU suit, which contends that gas chamber executions violate the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
If the suit succeeds, all executions in the state will be conducted by lethal injection, an option added by law last year in response to the case. Patel heard final arguments in the case Jan. 26.