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Serene Inmate Never Wavered as His Execution Drew Near

Punishment: Killer Robert Lee Massie stayed true to his wish. Though he had the power to stop his death, he refused at the last minute to do so.

March 28, 2001|KURT STREETER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN QUENTIN — In his last moments, even with needles in his arms ready to flow with deadly toxins, even as he signaled prison officials to go ahead and get it over with, Robert Lee Massie remained icily stoic.

For much of the last 35 years, the two-time killer had said he welcomed death rather than having to live the rest of his days in prison. Through the years he had become the inmate who spent more time on San Quentin State Prison's death row than any currently condemned man, all the while raging against a system he called unfair.

Now he lay on a gurney in a sea-green death chamber at San Quentin, surrounded by 50 witnesses.

Though he could have stopped the proceeding at any moment because he had not exhausted his death penalty appeals, Massie stayed true to his word, never flinching at death.

Robert Lee Massie, who killed in 1965 and again in 1979, was pronounced dead by lethal injection at 12:33 a.m. Tuesday.

The execution was so efficient, so cool and clinical, it left witnesses on both sides of the death penalty debate equally startled.

"It seemed too easy," said Rick Naumoff, whose father was fatally shot by Massie in 1979. "Just being put to sleep--he got off too easy."

Said Frederick Baker, Massie's lawyer:

"It was so clinical. That makes it worse. The fact the state can kill someone this way, it was just awful."

As his hours dwindled Massie, a slight 59-year-old, was serene and spoke to Baker of his beliefs in spirituality and reincarnation, beliefs underscored by his last words: "Forgiveness. Giving up all hope for a better past."

The execution was scheduled to begin just after midnight. About that time, several hundred protesters chanted, prayed and pounded Native American drums outside the prison's high cement walls.

Massie entered the prison's tiny death chamber wearing blue pants, a blue shirt and an expression of almost bemused detachment. His hands, shackled by handcuffs, sat restfully in front of his thin stomach. He was ashen. His pinkish lips were pursed and tight.

Because he wanted to die and had not gone through all of his appeals, Massie and San Quentin Warden Jeanne Woodford worked out a deal. Just before he was to be put to death she would ask him if he had changed his mind. If he had, the execution would be halted. In the hours before his death, Massie repeatedly assured her he would not waver.

Surrounding the glass-encased death chamber, in a small room, were the witnesses. Among them, standing near the back walls, were state officials, two of Massie's spiritual advisors, journalists, a few lawyers who had represented him years ago and Baker.

Closer to the inmate, seated in metal chairs just a few feet from the chamber, was a group of people who for decades have wanted to see him die.

Ron Weiss, whose mother, Mildred, was shot to death in a botched stickup in San Gabriel in 1965, revealed little of the anger burning inside him. Next to Weiss were the loved ones of Boris Naumoff, a liquor store owner killed by Massie in San Francisco in 1979, and Chuck Harris, whom Massie wounded during the store shooting.

They too sat calmly, hardly ever taking their eyes off Massie. No one spoke, no one sobbed. The only sounds came from reporters scribbling notes with paper and pencil provided by the prison--and the faint clicking of steam pipes.

Prison guards placed the condemned man on a padded gurney. His body was strapped tight by what looked like an elaborate black seat belt.

The guards and medical staff prepared him by inserting a needle into his left arm, then wrapping his arm in white tape. The same procedure was performed on his right arm.

At one point Massie could be seen balling his hand into a fist, as if to make the veins in his arms more accessible. He lifted his head repeatedly, as if intrigued by the proceeding.

At 12:18 a.m. Woodford asked if he wanted to continue. Massie mumbled to her and nodded his head.

He turned his head to his left, looking through the gallery, past the Naumoffs, to Baker, and mouthed the words "Thank you." The tall, gray-haired lawyer smiled and saluted.

At 12:20 a.m. a guard announced that the execution of "prisoner A90159" was to proceed. Over the next minutes a series of drugs pumped into Massie's arms.

For about five minutes nothing seemed to change--Massie's eyes blinked open and shut, his mouth closed. Suddenly, he let out a few quiet grunts. Over the next long minutes, his right arm and body twitched briefly, his chest and stomach spasmed at least three times. His toes twitched.

Then everything in the room and death chamber was still. Members of the Naumoff family held hands tightly. Rick Naumoff's white shirt was soaked with sweat. His teeth, he would say later, were grinding.

Thirteen minutes after the drugs entered Massie's body, the prison guard announced he was dead.

At a short news conference immediately after the execution, Merick Rickman, one of Boris Naumoff's grandchildren, spoke of the toll the murder had taken on his family.

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