Robert Alton Harris
|Robert Alton Harris|
Robert Alton Harris in 1990
January 15, 1953|
Fort Bragg, North Carolina
|Died||April 21, 1992
San Quentin State Prison
San Quentin, California
|Criminal status||Executed in gas chamber|
|Conviction(s)||Murder, kidnapping, burglary, robbery|
Robert Alton Harris (January 15, 1953 – April 21, 1992) was an American criminal and murderer who was executed at San Quentin State Prison in 1992 in connection with the 1978 murders of two teenage boys in San Diego. His execution was the first in the state of California since 1967.
Harris was born in North Carolina and was abused as a child. He had run-ins with law enforcement as early as age 10, and was first placed into juvenile detention at age 13 for stealing a car. His mother abandoned him at age 14 and soon after he was again placed into juvenile detention after stealing another car. Following his release he found work, married, and had a son, but in 1975 he was imprisoned for manslaughter; he was paroled in January 1978.
On July 5, 1978, Harris and his younger brother commandeered a car occupied by two 16-year-old boys, ordered them to drive to a remote area, then killed them. The brothers then used the boys' car as their getaway car when they robbed a San Diego bank. Harris was arrested less than an hour after the robbery and charged with murder, auto theft, kidnapping, burglary, and bank robbery. He was convicted and sentenced to death on March 6, 1979. After a series of appeals and stays of execution, Harris was executed in San Quentin's gas chamber on April 21, 1992.
Early life and criminal history
Robert Alton Harris was born at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, the fifth of nine children of Kenneth and Evelyn Harris. Kenneth was a sergeant in the United States Army who was awarded a Silver Star and Purple Heart for his service in World War II. Both parents were alcoholics, and Robert reportedly was born two months premature as a result of Kenneth kicking Evelyn in the abdomen; Robert is also reported to have suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome. Robert was especially targeted for abuse by his father, who believed that Robert was conceived in an affair. The Harris family moved to Visalia, California in 1962 following Kenneth Harris' discharge from the Army. Kenneth Harris was jailed in 1963 for 18 months and again for a longer period of time in 1964, both times for sexually abusing his daughters. With Kenneth in jail, the remaining family members lived a migrant life around the San Joaquin Valley.
Robert spent four months in juvenile hall at age 13 for stealing a car. In 1967, Evelyn abandoned Robert, then 14, in Sacramento and left him to fend for himself. After making his way to Oklahoma to live with his brother and sister, he stole a car and was subsequently arrested in Florida. He spent the next 3 years in the Florida juvenile detention system, but when he turned 19, the system could no longer keep him, and he was sent to Chula Vista, California. At some point Harris married and the couple had a son, Robert, Jr., born in 1974 or 1975. In 1975 while living in a trailer park in Imperial County, Harris beat his brother's roommate to death, claiming he did so to protect the victim's wife; however, it was later determined that he beat the victim without provocation. He was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and imprisoned in San Luis Obispo; during his imprisonment Harris' wife filed for divorce. Harris was paroled in January 1978.
Conviction and execution
The San Diego County District Attorney's Office filed felony charges of auto theft, kidnapping, murder and burglary against Robert Harris, while the U.S. Attorney's Office filed bank robbery charges against him. On March 6, 1979, Robert Harris was convicted in the San Diego County Superior Court of two counts of murder in the first degree with special circumstances as well as two counts of kidnapping, and was sentenced to death. Daniel Harris was convicted of kidnapping and sentenced to six years in state prison; he was released in 1983.
An appeal for clemency to California governor Pete Wilson – who was mayor of San Diego at the time of the killings – was rejected in a live television news conference, where Wilson read a statement acknowledging Harris' abusive childhood but ended with a clear rejection of the clemency request, saying, "As great as is my compassion for Robert Harris the child, I cannot excuse or forgive the choice made by Robert Harris the man." Wilson then left without waiting for reporters' questions.
Harris was executed on April 21, 1992, in the gas chamber at San Quentin State Prison—the first execution in California in 25 years. For his last meal, he requested and was given a 21-piece bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken, two large Domino's pizzas, a bag of jelly beans, a six-pack of Pepsi, and a pack of Camel cigarettes. At 6:01 a.m., Harris was escorted into the gas chamber. The execution order was given at 6:07 a.m. PDT, and Harris died at 6:21 a.m. PDT. His body was removed from the chamber at 7:00 a.m. and was taken to a funeral home at 8:15 a.m.
Harris' execution was originally scheduled for 12:01 a.m. on the morning of April 21, but a series of four stays issued by individual federal judges delayed the execution until just after 6 a.m. In its order vacating the fourth stay of execution, the U.S. Supreme Court stated, "No further stays of Robert Alton Harris's execution shall be entered by the Federal courts except upon order of this Court."
Harris' execution is specifically remembered for his peculiar choice of final words (recorded by Warden Daniel Vasquez): "You can be a king or a street sweeper, but everybody dances with the grim reaper," a misquotation of a line from the 1991 film Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey. The misquoted line ("You might be a king or a little street sweeper, but sooner or later you dance with the reaper.") was itself an adaptation of the traditional German Totentanz (danse macabre) illustration caption "Wer war der Thor, wer der Weise[r], wer der Bettler oder Kaiser? Ob arm, ob reich, im Tode gleich." ("Who was the fool, who the wise man, who the beggar or the Emperor? Whether rich or poor, [all are] equal in death."). Harris' execution was the subject of a 1995 Dutch documentary film, Procedure 769, witness to an execution.
- Morain, Dan (21 April 1992). "From Birth to Death Row, Violence Surrounded Harris". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 1 June 2012.
- Gross, Jane (31 March 1990). "California Execution Stayed: State Is Appealing to High Court". The New York Times. Retrieved 31 May 2012.
- "Robert Alton Harris". Clark County (Indiana) Prosecuting Attorney. Retrieved 31 May 2012.
- "Robert Alton Harris". California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Retrieved 31 May 2012.
- Morain, Dan (6 September 1992). "Son of Executed Killer Faces Trial". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 1 June 2012.
- Janet Golden, "An Argument That Goes Back to the Womb: The Demedicalization of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, 1973-1992," Journal of Social HIstory, Vol. 33, 1999
- Statement of governor Pete Wilson on YouTube
- Gross, Jane (March 31, 1990). "California Execution Stayed: State Is Appealing to High Court". The New York Times. Retrieved April 26, 2011.
- Harris executed at San Quentin
- Robert Alton Harris' final words read out loud by warden Daniel Vasquez on YouTube
- http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0101452/trivia?tab=qt, item 17 as of 2013-08-13
- Video footage of the crime and the conviction of Robert A Harris on YouTube (private video)