Death Penalty Debate Continues

Robert Alton Harris's execution in California comes after 14 years of appeals

THE execution of Robert Alton Harris in the California gas chamber early April 21 marks a watershed in the political and legal struggle over capital punishment in America.

It is not only the first state-sanctioned death in California in 25 years but underscores the expanding use of society's ultimate punishment outside the South.

The state is the fourth this year, along with Arizona, Delaware, and Wyoming, to carry out the death penalty for the first time since the US Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976.

The execution has taken on added significance because of California's position in the national ethos as a trend-setter.

The state has played a major role in the evolution of capital punishment in modern politics, from former native son Richard Nixon's law-and-order crusade in 1968 to Ronald Reagan's tenure in Sacramento and Washington, D.C.

"California has been one of the major states in the fight over the death penalty in the last 50 years," says Hugo Bedau, a Tufts University philosopher. "With the execution of Harris, there is a major hole in the dike - a major defeat in the strategy of those seeking to keep executions confined to the South."

Convicted of killing two teenage boys in San Diego in 1978, Harris was put to death by cyanide gas in an airtight steel capsule at San Quentin prison early April 21. It followed a flurry of dramatic last-minute appeals that had the execution off one moment and on the next. The last stay arrived as Harris was strapped in the gas chamber.

In the end, Supreme Court overturned that stay, the fourth, and ordered the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals not to file any more.

For death penalty supporters, the Harris case, after 14 years in the courts, came to symbolize what is wrong with the criminal-justice system in capital cases - allowing seemingly endless appeals. His case made it to the US Supreme Court five times.

In recent years, the high court has been increasingly placing limits on such procedures, and supporters see the Harris case as a bridge to an era of more "timely" executions.

"This was the clog in the pipe," says Michael Rushford, president of the Sacramento-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation. "There are virtually no more arguments in opposition to the death penalty that have not been put to rest as a result of this case."

Death penalty foes see the execution as a dark hour for civilization and criminal justice. Clergy, civil libertarians, and other opponents hope the attention surrounding the case will inspire moral repugnance over a punishment they consider barbaric. But they worry it is just a harbinger of more executions to come.

"The message this sends is that it's OK to kill," says John Poulos, a law professor at the University of California at Davis. "When it comes from mainstream California, that message is extra strong."

Harris was the 169th person executed in the United States since 1977. Most have occurred in the South, with Texas (46), Florida (27), and Louisiana (20) leading the way.

Although surveys show that three out of four Americans support capital punishment and the number of people on death row continues to rise, the number of executions each year has remained relatively stable - usually less than two dozen.

One reason for the seeming discrepancy is the safeguards built into the legal system for capital cases. With procedures being streamlined, however, and with more cases working their way through the system, some scholars such as Mr. Poulos predict an increase in executions in the 1990s.

California will be crucial to any trend: It now has the second highest death-row population (328) after Texas.

Death-penalty advocates believe resumption of executions in California will help deter crime, though they argue the deterrent effect would be stronger if the penalty were imposed consistently and quickly.

Opponents counter - and several studies back them up - that there is no evidence that capital punishment stops would-be criminals.

The cost of imposing the penalty will be watched. Although precise figures aren't available, some studies have suggested that seeking the death penalty can be more expensive than life imprisonment because of the legal costs involved.

Capital punishment supporters say streamlining the appeals process will take care of that. Foes say so would doing away with the punishment.

Another issue that may endure is the appropriateness of using the gas chamber. Of the 36 states that have death penalty laws, only three - California, Arizona, and Maryland - prescribe gas. Critics believe the method, which can take up to 10 minutes to kill, is inhumane. Some advocate switching to lethal injection.

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