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Robert Alton HARRIS





Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Kidnapping - Robbery
Number of victims: 2
Date of murders: July 5, 1978
Date of arrest: Same day
Date of birth: January 15, 1953
Victims profile: John Mayeski (male, 16) and Michael Naker (male, 16)
Method of murder: Shooting (9mm Luger pistol)
Location: San Diego County, California, USA
Status: Executed by asphyxiation-gas in California on April 21, 1992

Supreme Court of the United States

Pulley v. Harris (No. 82-1095)

syllabus opinion

United States Court of Appeals
For the Ninth Circuit

opinion 1982 opinion 1990


Robert Alton Harris and his brother, Daniel Marcus Harris, abducted two teenage boys from a fast food restaurant, forcing them to drive to an isolated area. After Robert shot and killed both boys, they drove home, then later used the stolen car to rob a bank. A witness followed the car from the robbery, and police arrested both men.

Both Robert and Daniel Harris admitted the abduction and killing of the teenagers to police. At trial Robert Harris admitted robbing the bank but denied kidnapping the youths or being responsible for their murders. He was nevertheless convicted and sentenced to death. Accomplice Daniel Marcus Harris testified at his brother's trial and was sentenced to six years in state prison for kidnapping. He was discharged in 1983.

Harris became the first person executed in California since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976. At the time of the execution, the U.S. Supreme Court was forced to take the unprecedented step of not allowing any stays through lower courts, after the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals repeatedly granted last-minute stays.

Name: Harris, Robert Alton CDC# B66883 Sex: M
Alias: None. 
Race: White 
Date Received: 03/14/1979 
DOB: 01/15/1953 
Education: Unknown 
Location: San Quentin State Prison 
Married: No 

County of Trial: San Diego  Sentence Date: 03/09/1979 
County of Residence: San Diego  County of Offense: San Diego 
Offense Date: 07/05/1978  Court Action: Affirmed 
Court Date: 02/11/1981  Case #: CR44135 


John Mayeski (male, 16),
Michael Baker (male, 16)


Daniel Marcus Harris, CDC# C03005


The defendant, Robert Alton Harris, and his brother, co-defendant Daniel Marcus Harris, abducted two teenage boys. The defendant brutally murdered the boys, and then stole their car.

The investigation revealed that at 10:30 a.m. on July 5, 1978, the defendant and co-defendant left their residence, and drove to a fast food restaurant. Once at the restaurant, the two men abducted two 16-years-old boys, John Mayeski and Michael Baker. The defendant held the victims at gunpoint with a 9mm Luger pistol and forced them to drive until they reached an isolated area. Daniel Harris followed in the defendant's 1963 Ford.

At about 11:45 a.m., the defendant shot and killed both victims in the presence of Daniel Harris. Following the killings, the Harris brothers drove both automobiles to their residence. Later that day they drove the stolen vehicle to a local bank. Donning colored ski masks, the two robbed the bank, netting $2,000 in cash.

The Harrises fled the bank at 12:30 p.m. and drove back to the residence. Robert Harris parked the stolen vehicle in the garage.

At about 1:05 p.m., San Diego police officers, acting on a tip by a witness who had followed the suspects' vehicle to the residence, apprehended the Harrises. Police recovered 20 unfired rounds of 9mm ammunition from Robert Harris. Clothing and other effects linked to the robbery were found smoldering in the fireplace.

At about 6:20 p.m. that evening, police questioned Daniel Harris who gave a voluntary statement describing in detail the abduction and the killing of the victims by the defendant. Officers went to the scene of the murder and discovered the two murdered victims.

When initially interviewed by authorities, the defendant admitted robbing the bank but denied kidnapping the youths or being responsible for their murders. He later indicated to authorities that his brother, Daniel, had furnished the stolen automobile. The defendant continued to deny any involvement in the murders, indicating that it had been his brother who had suggested the robbery while they were in Porterville, California.

The San Diego District Attorney's Office filed felony charges of auto theft, kidnapping, murder and burglary against the defendant. The U.S. Attorney's Office filed bank robbery charges against him.

On March 6, 1979, Robert Alton Harris was convicted in San Diego County, Superior Court of two counts murder in the first degree with special circumstances, and kidnapping.

Co-defendant Daniel Marcus Harris was convicted of kidnapping and sentenced to six years in state prison. He was discharged in 1983.


Robert Alton Harris was executed April 21, 1992 in the gas chamber at San Quentin State Prison - the first execution in California in 25 years.

For his last meal, Harris requested and was given two large pizzas, a bucket of fried chicken, and ice cream. At 6:01 a.m., Harris was escorted into the gas chamber. The execution order was given at 6:07 a.m., and Harris was pronounced dead at 6:21 a.m. The body was removed from the chamber at 7 a.m. and left the grounds at 8:15 a.m.

The Harris execution was 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' execution shall be entered by the federal courts except upon order of this court."

According to Warden Daniel Vasquez, Harris' last words were: "You can be a king or a street sweeper, but everyone dances with the grim reaper."



Date: 08/04/1975




Robert Alton Harris (January 15, 1953–April 21, 1992) was an American career criminal and murderer who was executed in San Quentin's gas chamber in 1992. This marked the first execution in the state of California since 1967.

Harris had killed two teenage boys in 1978. 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 everyone dances with the grim reaper." This was a reference to the film Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey, released in 1991. The Grim Reaper (William Sadler) raps, "You might be a king or a little street sweeper, but sooner or later you'll dance with the reaper."

The crime

On July 5, 1978, Harris and his 18-year-old brother, Daniel, decided to steal a getaway car for a holdup they planned at a branch of the San Diego Trust and Savings Bank. By chance they came upon John Mayeski, 15, and Michael Baker, 16, both high school sophomores, sitting in a green Ford LTD in a parking lot eating Jack in the Box burgers.

Armed with a 9mm Luger automatic pistol, Robert Harris commandeered Mayseki's car and ordered him to drive to a wooded area near Miramar Lake. He promised them no one would be hurt.

After killing the two boys, according to testimony, the Harris brothers drove to a girlfriend's apartment, where Robert Harris finished the rest of the murdered boys' half-eaten hamburgers and flicked bits of gore from his pistol barrel. He laughed and bragged about how he had killed them and giggled at what it would be like to be a police officer telling the victims' families that the boys had been murdered.

About an hour later, wearing maroon ski masks over their faces, the Harrises held up the crowded Mira Mesa branch of the San Diego Trust and Savings Bank and fled with about $3,000.

By coincidence, one of the San Diego police officers to arrest the Harrises a few hours later was undercover officer Steven Baker, father of the boy who was shot point blank.

Later, after he was arrested, Robert Harris boasted to a cellmate that he told the terrified Baker boy to "quit crying and die like a man." When the boy started to pray, Harris said, "God can't help you now, boy; you're going to die."

The San Diego 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, the elder Harris was convicted in the San Diego County Superior Court of two counts of murder in the first degree with special circumstances, and of kidnapping.

His younger brother, Daniel, was convicted of kidnapping and sentenced to six years in state prison. He was released in 1983.

The execution

An appeal for clemency to California governor Pete Wilson 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.

Robert Alton 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., and Harris was pronounced dead at 6:21 a.m. The body was removed from the chamber at 7 a.m. and left the grounds 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' execution shall be entered by the federal courts except upon order of this court."

Prior criminal history

  • Initial police involvement was for killing neighborhood cats.

  • Served three years as a juvenile in Florida for petty larceny, auto theft and escape.

  • In 1975 he was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and was paroled three years later.


Capital Punishment USA

On Tuesday, April 21st 1992, 39 year old Robert Alton Harris was put to death in the gas chamber at San Quentin Prison in California’s first execution for 25 years. He had been sentenced to die for the particularly brutal killing of two teenage boys in 1978 who’s car he had hijacked for use in a bank robbery.

The execution had originally been scheduled for 12.01am, half an hour after the first stay was overturned, but was then postponed for nearly four hours while courts considered applications claiming that execution by lethal gas was cruel and unusual punishment under the 8th Amendment to the Constitution. On that issue, a federal judge ruled that the execution had to be filmed to see the extent of Harris's suffering and a camera was mounted on a tripod outside the gas chamber.

The execution was re-scheduled for 4.01am. Shortly before 3am, he got dressed in new jeans and a blue prison shirt. He was strapped into one of the two chairs in the gas chamber and had been waiting for 12 minutes for the execution to be carried out when an unexpected call came through saying a US appellate judge had granted a further stay. Some of the 49 official witnesses, who included "12 reputable citizens" selected by the warden, spoke of their horror and astonishment as Harris was unbuckled and led away by guards.

Four stays of execution had been granted and overturned in nine hours. But the Supreme Court finally issued an unprecedented order that no further stay would be valid unless issued by the court itself. Shortly before 6am, Harris was again led back to the chamber. He was described as looking resigned to his fate and was fully co-operative with the guards who led him the 15 paces from his cell. He was strapped into the metal chair and a stethoscope taped to his chest. The door was closed and sealed and at 6.05am, he began breathing deeply, staring ahead and attempting to mouth the words "it's all right" and "I'm sorry."

At 6.07. a prison official operated the lever, slowly lowering the pellets of cheesecloth-wrapped sodium cyanide into the small vat of sulfuric acid beneath the chair to create the lethal hydrocyanic gas. Harris took a number of deep breaths and for several minutes appeared to gasp and twitch convulsively. His head snapped back and then dropped as he strained against the straps. After a minute his hands seemed to relax. His mouth was open and his face flushed and turning blue. Three minutes later there was a cough and a convulsion.

At 6.21 a.m. (eleven minutes after the start) Warden Daniel Vasquez declared Harris dead. and announced the words Harris had chosen to be remembered by. Taken from the film Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, they were: "You can be a king or a street sweeper. But everybody dances with the grim reaper." Christina Crystal who witnessed the execution for UPI, said afterwards: "It wasn't as hard to watch as I thought it would be the second time around. Harris seemed to lose consciousness after about one-and-half minutes." She, and other witnesses, said he looked a very different and more solemn Robert Harris than two hours earlier. After the execution the exhaust fan is switched on to remove the hydrocyanic gas and then the dead body is sprayed with liquid ammonia to neutralize any remaining gas. The last stage in the process is "Procedure 769" in which staff wearing gas masks and rubber gloves remove the body having first ruffled the hair to ensure that no gas is trapped in it.


Robert Harris had a violent and unhappy childhood that started in the womb. He was born three months premature after his mother was brutally assaulted by his father who kicked her in the stomach. Both parents inflicted frequent beatings on young Robert who suffered a broken jaw at the age of two after a punch form his father. For sport, his father would load a gun and tell the children they had 30 minutes to hide outside the house, after which he would shoot them down like animals.

Eventually Harris senior was jailed for sexually molesting his daughters, while the mother smoked and drank herself to death. Robert Harris was twenty five years old when he shot and killed two San Diego teenagers. Prosecutors told the jury that Harris taunted the victims before they died, laughed at them after he pulled the trigger, then calmly ate the hamburgers they had bought for lunch.


Executions Out of the Ordinary: Robert Alton Harris

BBC News

In 1979 Harris was sentenced to death for the murder of two teenage boys whose car he had stolen. He was executed on 21 April 1992 in the gas chamber at San Quentin State Prison in California, the state's first execution for 25 years.

Harris's last words, quoting a Keanu Reeves film, were: "You can be a king or a street sweeper, but everyone dances with the grim reaper." A federal judge ordered the execution to be filmed so as to decide whether the gas chamber was a "cruel and unusual punishment". The tapes were later destroyed.


A Tale of Two Criminals: The Primal Roots of Violence

By David Chamberlain, PhD.

David Edwin Mason and Robert Alton Harris spent their final years on Death Row before they were gassed by the state of California in 1991 and 1993 for heinous crimes of violcnce. Their brographies expose the primal roots of violence.

The dossier on Mason reveals him to have been a sad and lonely child whose mother tried to induce a miscarriage to avoid having him in the first place - and who never was allowed to forget that he was unwanted. Older sisters describe a household where hugging or laughter were prohibited, and in which young David was beaten almost daily with his father's belt or, in the hands of his mother, "a switch or pancake turner."

When only five, the child attempted suicide by swallowing a bottle of pills and set his clothing on fire. At eight he was taking out his hostility by setting fires at church or at school. The parents took to locking him away in a room they called "the dungeon" - a bedroom with the windows nailed shut. Persistent bedwetting, and worse, were countered by parading David with the soiled clothes wrapped around his head. At age 23, Mason went on a nine-month killing spree in the neighborhood where he had grown up, strangling four elderly men and women. He later confessed that it was "something I have always wanted to do."

Robert's beginnings were striklngly similar. He was born three months premature after his mother was kicked so brutally in the abdomen by an angry husband, that she began hemorrhaging. As in the Mason family, both parents inflicted frequent beatings - the father with his fists, causing a broken jaw when Robert was not yet two. Sitting at the table, if Robert reached out for something without his father's permission, he would end up with a fork in the back of his hand.

For sport, father would load his gun and tell the children they had 30 minutes to hide outside the house, after which he would hunt them like animals. threatening to shoot anyone he found. Like Mason, young Harris soon began showing anger toward animals and people. The senior Harris was jailed for sexually molesting his daughters, while the mother smoked and drank herself to death.

Harris was twenty five years old when he shot two San Diego teenagers to death. Prosecutors told the jury that Harris taunted the victims before they died, laughed at them after he pulled the trigger, then calmly ate the hamburgers they had bought for lunch. Pain and rejection were the foundation stones on which these angry young men tried to build their lives. Violence was a legacy from their parents.

In an editorial on the occasion of Mason's execution, former U.S. Congressman Lionel Van Deerlin of San Diego concluded: "Such persons must be put away, of course. But can society feel comfortable when providing the final touch to a pattern of violence which may literally have begun in the mother's womb?" Congressman Van Deerlin shows rare nsight in connecting events widely separated in time: womb violence and criminal violence. As a society we have naively viewed the earliest period of human development as a "free period" when rules are suspended and there are no consequences for torturous mental and emotional events. This is wishful thinking.

The latest research on fetal and neonatal behavior indicates that all babies are keenly aware of their environment, are fully able to feel pain, and are constantly learning from their experiences. These scientific findings support what the biographies of Mason and Harris reveal so well: violence during pregnancy and birth is the seedbed of a violent society.

Vulnerability to hostility during the primal period continues through a range of flashpoints including discovery of pregnancy, chronic warfare between parents, physical and psychic attacks on the fetus, the multiple traumas ot premature birth, the routine traumas of medical birth including heel lancing for blood samples, needle injections of vitamin K, rough handling in a too cold, too bright environment, and finally, more often than not, exile and isolation from mother and father. Crown these insults and injuries with rejection after birth and you have the formula for personal misery, smoldering resentments, and social explosions.

What can parents do about violence in society? Briefly, they can turn things in a different direction at all the chronological flashpoints: Start with a planned conception, get help to resolve interpersonal problems at the earliest possible time, send lots of loving messages to the baby in the womb, organize for health and fitness to support full-term gestation in utero, and arrange for a non-vioient, natural birth in a context of reassuring touch, where mother's milk is always available and family solidarity is unbroken.

"Vicims of a devastating trauma may never be the same (again) biologically. It does not matter if it was the incessant terror of combat, torture, repeated abuse in childhood, or a one-time experience."

[Psychiatrist Dennis Charney, National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Yale University]



By Jaap van Hoewijk & Rikkert Boonstra, The Netherlands, 35mm, 80’

After a nerve-wracking last minute stay Robert Alton Harris finally walked to his execution in San Quentin on April 21st, 1992 for the murder of two boys he committed back in 1978. For the State of California this was the first execution in 25 years and for 14 years the Harris-case was a top news story on radio and television across the United States. Procedure 769 (which is the administrative name for the death penalty) makes a major contribution to the topical discussion on death penalty by focusing on the people who are witnesses to an execution.

The film features a number of people who were present at the time. Among them San Quentin’s former warden who supervised the execution, the father, mother and a sister of one of the slain boys, a journalist, official witnesses such as the current sheriff of San Diego, a brother and a far cousin (a Minister from Alabama) of Harris. All of these people had mixed and often very contradictory feelings about watching Harris’ execution. Throughout the film, we are made aware of the vital role the media played in the case.

The making of Procedure 769 - On April 21st 1992 Jaap van Hoewijk hears on the radio of the execution in California of someone by the name of Harris. It would be the first execution in the state in 25 years. He hears that the condemned man has been executed in the presence of about 50 witnesses... 50 people were present at the execution. 50 people stood or sat and watched. Who are they and why are they there? Van Hoewijk's curiosity is aroused and he decides to investigate. A few days later he finds out through newspaper reports that the witnesses came from widely different backgrounds. At that moment he realized that this could be a wonderful point of departure for a film: a group of people all watching the same event, but all seeing something different.

But it is not easy to find these witnesses. No one in the US is willing or able to help track these people down. Quite coincidentally, an organisation opposed to executions sends a fax from van Hoewijk on to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington DC. Michael Kroll, director of this centre, responded. He happened to attend the execution as a friend of Harris, but he refuses to cooperate with the film.

The memory of that horrific night when Harris was killed is too painful. After many months and many letters, Kroll is finally willing to cooperate and help with the project. He puts the filmmaker in touch with Randall and Leon Harris, respectively the brother and cousin of Robert Harris. Randall Harris has never previously wanted to talk to a reporter.

Slowly but surely, van Hoewijk comes into contact with the other witnesses and to his amazement, almost all the witnesses he finds agree to take part. San Quentin State Prison director Daniel Vasquez however refuses to speak to the filmmaker. However when the crew is already shooting the film, Vasquez calls van Hoewijk by phone. He has a different job now and wants to talk.

"Hoewijk has made one of the best films on the subject ... gripping all the way ... aa real eye-opener!" - Filmnews.


Deadly Compromise

By Joshua Green - The Washington Monthly

* * * * *

In 1978, Robert Alton Harris, a 26-year-old paroled murderer, kidnapped two California teenagers in the parking lot of a fast-food restaurant. He drove to a remote canyon where he killed the two boys, then finished the hamburgers they'd been eating and drove off. Harris was later caught robbing a bank. He confessed to the murders and was sentenced to death in 1979. Yet he managed to delay his execution for 13 years by repeatedly manipulating the appeals system.

Harris and his lawyers challenged the quality of his psychiatric evaluation, claimed California's gas chamber was unconstitutional, and argued that the death penalty discriminated against younger killers, males, and those who killed whites. Each of these claims stalled his execution. In a flurry of last-minute appeals, the Supreme Court overturned four separate stays on the night of Harris' execution before it took the unprecedented step of forbidding lower courts to issue further stays. By the time he was finally put to death in 1992, Harris had managed to get more than 20 appeals.


Righting a Lopsided Argument

Bates Magazine - Letters to Editor

I feel compelled to register the significant level of concern I felt over Michael Laurence's essay, "Death Be Not Proud" (summer 1997). There is an obligation to balance his one-sided assessment of the death penalty and what can be construed as the magazine's implicit endorsement of these views.

I, too, come from a Jewish family, from a family whose ranks were decimated by an evil regime bent on extinguishing an entire people from the earth. Reading Mr. Laurence's veiled attempt to link the self-imposed consequences of cold-blooded killers to the plight of the slaughtered and innocent victims of the Holocaust was deeply troubling. This shameful ploy is an insult to the victims by associating their names with the scum Mr. Laurence has every right in the world to defend. Additionally, I do not see any similarity between the hateful Nazi regime and the United States government that helped end their attempt at world domination.

Throughout Mr. Laurence's piece we are offered his insight into the "distortions of the legal system," interpretations of capital punishment as "killing," and the long, agonizing journey that leads to the execution of Mr. Laurence's client, Robert Harris. Apart from perfunctory references to a horrific crime, we are left with the impression that Mr. Harris is as much a victim as anyone. Mr. Laurence is loyal to his client by presenting all the typical excuses for his criminal behavior, but fails to detail that behavior. What would I like to do here is something that is rarely, if ever, done in typically lopsided anti-capital punishment arguments: represent the victims.

In 1978 Robert Alton Harris abducted two teenagers from a San Diego fast food restaurant and shot them down for absolutely no reason. Through his own admission, he taunted them before they died, laughed after shooting each of them in the head, and calmly sat down beside the bodies and finished the lunch he had stolen from the victims before ending their lives.

Whether Robert Harris had a terrible upbringing or not, did too many drugs, hung out with the wrong crowd, was messed up on Twinkies, or whether other excuses were offered is, I feel, irrelevant. He snuffed out two young, vital lives that no excuse in the world can restore. Why should extenuating circumstances be argued in cold-blooded cases of murder such as this? Does any extenuating circumstance make these two boys less dead? Charles Manson, too, had a pretty rough upbringing. Does that somehow negate the carnage he inspired? What happened to the concept of responsibility for one's actions? Even the term "not guilty by reason of insanity" is legalistic insult to a murder victim. What about guilty by reason of insanity?

Mr. Laurence should also be cautious of overstepping his professional capabilities and personal experiences by claiming to speak for the families of his client's victims. "Capital punishment is not a panacea for the loss of a loved one," he asserts, and "it is a lie" that execution will offer closure. He is, unfortunately, unqualified to speak for these people and, moreover, clearly uninformed.

The families of the two young boys all requested to be present at Robert Harris's execution "to see justice done after fourteen years." Linda Herring Baker, whose brother was slain by Harris, expressed the following after witnessing the execution: "He didn't want to give us the satisfaction of watching him die in pain, so he just sat there and died. He struggled a bit, but not enough for me unfortunately: I would have liked to see him struggle more for what he did."

Another point to which I must object is the assertion that the death penalty is not a deterrent. Make no mistake that it certainly is a deterrent. Robert Alton Harris will never again cut short the life of another young person or ruin the remaining years of countless family and friends. We are all safer with this type of person off the planet. I have never bought the argument that the death penalty should be measured by its ability to deter others from committing similar crimes. (How could that truly be measured, anyway?) People still run red lights even though our society penalizes such behavior. Does this mean fines do not work and they should be abolished?

Further, to assert that life in prison is an acceptable alternative to capital punishment challenges reality. We would all like to take comfort in the naive belief that once a convicted murder goes off to prison he is subject to a harsh daily routine on the rock pile, making little ones out of big ones.

However, the term "life in prison" is either wishful thinking, a sadly apt description, or simply an additional mockery toward a murder victim's family and the departed's memory. Thanks to the advent of minimum security, work release, parole hearing for "lifers," commutations, and "good behavior" credits and the like, "life in prison" is all but a hollow and impotent threat to the many who eventually walk free from their life sentences.

I could certainly go on here, but I will not. There are many more points that I object to in Mr. Laurence's article. However, my objective is not to "gang up" on him. His motives seem pure and his work honest. But there are people out there with much less virtuous intent who are a blight on society for the fear, destruction, and devastation they wrought on people's lives. They abrogate their rights of protection by a society whose very protection they threaten. The stilled voices of their victims must never be forgotten in our zeal to apply fairness where fairness does not exist.

Martin E. Levenson '81, Danvers, Massachusetts


The Electric Chair.Com

Famous Last Words: Robert Alton Harris: "You can be a king or a street sweeper, but everyone dances with the Grim Reaper." (Robert Alton Harris, put to death in California's gas chamber on April 21, 1992, for the slayings of two teenagers)


Canadian Federation of Humane Society

Robert Alton Harris murdered two 16 year old boys, doused a neighbour with lighter fluid and tossed matches at him. His initial run-in with police was for killing neighbourhood cats.


People v. Harris, 171 Cal.Rptr. 679 (Cal. 1981) (Direct Appeal).

Defendant Robert Alton Harris appeals from a judgment imposing the death penalty following his conviction of kidnaping, robbery and first degree murder of John Mayeski and Michael Baker. Defendant was also convicted of receiving stolen property and of possession of a concealable firearm by an ex-felon. We affirm the judgment.


In May or June of 1978 defendant first asked his brother Daniel for help in a planned bank robbery. On 2 July 1978, Daniel stole a .22 rifle and a .9 millimeter pistol from the home of Jim Corbin, a neighbor. While Daniel and defendant were in the house, apparently in Corbin's absence, defendant stated they needed weapons for the bank robbery and asked whether there were any in the house. Daniel then showed defendant the guns and took them from the house.

The brothers left Visalia for San Diego that evening. The next morning, 3 July 1978, they purchased ammunition, went to a nearby rural area and practiced firing the weapons by shooting at trees while running and rolling a drill they considered appropriate in preparing for the bank robbery.

The following morning, 4 July 1978, defendant and his brother purchased more ammunition as well as knit caps, in which they burned eye holes, to serve as masks in the bank robbery. That afternoon they went to the Miramar Lake area, near Mira Mesa, for more shooting practice.

The next morning, 5 July 1978, having decided to steal an automobile for use as a getaway car, the brothers spotted a green Ford in a grocery store parking lot directly across Mira Mesa Boulevard from the bank. John Mayeski, 15, and Michael Baker, 16, were in the car eating hamburgers. Assuring Daniel "nobody is going to get hurt," defendant walked over to the Ford, pulled the pistol from his waistband, and got in the back seat. With Daniel following in defendant's car, the Ford was then driven out Mira Mesa Boulevard toward Miramar Lake and the fire trail where the brothers had been the day before.

At the foot of the fire trail defendant and Daniel parked the cars and forced the two boys to walk up the trail at gunpoint. Defendant was carrying the pistol and Daniel the rifle. Defendant told the boys their car was going to be used in a bank robbery but that no one would be hurt. Defendant asked the boys whether there was any rope in their car. The boys replied there was not but said they would walk to the top of the hill, wait until the brothers drove back to Mira Mesa, and then report the Ford as stolen, giving the police a misleading description of the thieves. Defendant voiced approval of this suggestion.

The boys then began walking up the hill. Suddenly, Daniel heard a shot. Turning around, he saw John Mayeski fall to the ground. Defendant had shot the boy in the back with the pistol. Defendant fired another shot into the boy's head, then ran after Michael Baker. Finding the Baker boy crouching and screaming in the brush, defendant shot him four times. Defendant then went back to the fallen Mayeski boy and fired a shot point-blank into his head.

Finally, defendant picked up the rifle dropped by Daniel and shot John Mayeski yet again. The brothers then left the murder scene and drove back to the house defendant shared in Mira Mesa. There defendant ate the remainder of the dead boys' food and laughed at Daniel for not having the stomach to join him.

While the brothers continued preparing for the bank robbery, defendant laughed and giggled about shooting the boys, saying he had blown Michael Baker's arm off. Defendant also amused himself by imagining what it would be like to be a police officer and to report the boys' deaths to their families. When Daniel noted there were fragments of flesh on defendant's pistol, apparently from the point-blank shot fired into John Mayeski's head, defendant laughed, commented he had really blown the boy's brains out, and then flicked the bits of flesh into the street.

Later the same day the brothers robbed the bank. They were quickly arrested for the bank robbery when a witness, who followed them from the bank to defendant's house, called the police. The brothers were arrested at 1:05 p. m. on 5 July 1978. At 4 p. m., Daniel first informed officers of the murders; at 6:30 p. m., Daniel confessed in a tape-recorded statement, placing the blame primarily on defendant. At 7 p. m., having listened to portions of Daniel's statement, defendant himself confessed to Officer Fred Dreis.

At midnight, the brothers were interviewed by Dr. Wait Griswold, a psychiatrist. On 7 July 1978, at 11:20 a. m., defendant repeated his confession in detail to Johnny Bolden, a criminal investigator for the San Diego County District Attorney's office. Finally, at 1 p. m. on 7 July 1978 an hour before he was arraigned defendant confessed to Officer Ronald Newman.

When one of defendant's sisters visited him in jail on 15 July 1978, he told her, "Now, I guess because I killed those two boys, they were only 16 years old, then robbed the bank and kidnaped them was because I really wanted to die." Defendant's last extrajudicial confession was made to a fellow inmate. Asked why he had killed the boys, defendant answered, "I couldn't have no punks running around that could do that (identify him), so I wasted them."

Testifying in his own behalf at the guilt phase, defendant admitted the bank robbery but denied kidnaping, robbing and murdering the two boys. He explained his pretrial confessions as attempts to protect his brother.Daniel testified for the People in return for being permitted to plead guilty to one count of kidnaping. His testimony was corroborated by a series of extrajudicial statements made by defendant.


In 1975 defendant pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter of James Wheeler. Wheeler and his wife lived with defendant's brother Ken and his wife; defendant and his wife lived next door. At the scene, defendant admitted beating Wheeler to death but claimed he had done so to protect the victim's wife when her husband threatened her with a knife. Later, just as in the present case, defendant repudiated his confession and sought to shift the blame to his brother, claiming Ken had killed Wheeler and that he had confessed to protect Ken. This is the story defendant told when testifying in the present proceeding.

However, defendant's former wife and his niece testified defendant, without provocation, beat Wheeler to death while mockingly claiming to teach his victim self defense. During this sadistic attack defendant also cut off Wheeler's hair and threw matches at him after squirting him with lighter fluid. Defendant's former wife admitted she lied to the grand jury investigating Wheeler's death explaining defendant had threatened to kill her too if she did not support his story.


Pulley v. Harris

R. Pulley, Warden

Robert Alton Harris

Petitioner's Claim
The failure of the state to provide for a judicial review of the proportionality of his death sentence was unconstitutional and required reversal of the sentence.

Chief Lawyer for Petitioner
Michael D. Wellington

Chief Lawyer for Respondent
Anthony G. Amsterdam

Justices for the Court
Harry A. Blackmun, Warren E. Burger, Sandra Day O'Connor, Lewis F. Powell, Jr., William H. Rehnquist, John Paul Stevens, Byron R. White (writing for the Court)

Justices Dissenting
William J. Brennan, Jr., Thurgood Marshall

Washington, D.C.

Date of Decision
23 January 1984

The Constitution does not require that a court review a sentence of death toconfirm that it has been imposed in similar cases.


The Harris decision described a minimum procedural threshold for statutory death penalty schemes.

The 14- year-long case against Robert Alton Harris began in 1978, when Harrisasked his brother, Daniel, to help him rob a bank. In July, the two brothersbegan to buy materials for the robbery, including pistols, rifles, ammunition, and face masks. After practicing shooting while running and rolling in a rural area near Mira Mesa, California, Harris and his brother staked out the San Diego Trust and Savings Bank on Mira Mesa Boulevard on 4 July 1978. The next morning they decided to steal a car to use for a getaway in the robbery. Spotting 15-year-old John Mayeski and 16-year-old Michael Baker in a car eating hamburgers near the bank, Harris approached the car, hopped into the back seat, pulled out his pistol, and ordered the boys to drive to a rural area.

Although Harris had assured his brother that no one was "going to get hurt,"Harris eventually shot Mayeski in the back, fired four shots at the shriekingBaker, and then returned to Mayeski for a pistol shot to the head and, finally, a blast from the shotgun. After killing the boys, Harris ate the boys' hamburgers and then chided his brother Daniel for being too weak to join him. Harris laughed about the murders and, when Daniel remarked that the pistol wascovered with fragments of flesh, Harris chuckled, saying as he flicked pieces of Mayeski's brain onto the street that he had "really blown [Mayeski's] brains out." Later that day, Harris and his brother robbed the bank of Mira Mesa Boulevard, but they were quickly apprehended when a witness to the robberyfollowed them from the bank to Harris' house and then called the police.

Daniel confessed to the police less than three hours after the arrests. Robert Harris confessed shortly thereafter on four different occasions to three different law enforcement officials and one psychiatrist. Both men were chargedin a California state court with the murders, but prosecutors offered Daniela lesser charge of kidnapping in exchange for a plea of guilty to that charge and his testimony against his brother. At his trial for first-degree murder, Robert Harris testified that his confessions were lies, and that he had lied to save his brother, who was the real killer. Harris had done the same thing in 1975, when he was accused and convicted of killing a neighbor; after confessing, Harris attempted to pin the blame on another of his brothers Ken. Harris was convicted of voluntary manslaughter in the 1975 case. For the 1978 slayings of Mayeski and Baker, Harris was convicted of first-degree murder. Harris admitted to the murders at the penalty phase of his trial and explainedto the jury that he had suffered a difficult childhood, but the jury sentenced him to death.

The Supreme Court of California affirmed the conviction and the sentence, andthe U.S. Supreme Court denied certiorari. Harris filed a habeas corpus petition against his prison's warden in state court, but the petition was denied, and the U.S. Supreme Court again denied certiorari. Harris then filed a petition for habeas corpus in federal district court;the district court denied the writ and refused to stay Harris' execution, butthe Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed the decision. The appeals court held that, under the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, Harris was entitled to a judicial determination of whether Harris' sentence was proportionate to sentences imposed for similar crimes. Theappeals court ordered the district court to issue a writ revoking the sentence unless the Supreme Court of California conducted a proportionality reviewwith 120 days. The state of California appealed this ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court through Harris' prison warden, and the High Court, by a vote of 7-2,reversed the decision.

Writing for the majority, Justice White defined proportionality in the context of sentencing as "an abstract evaluation of the appropriateness of a sentence for a particular crime." The Court acknowledged that the lack of proportion in a particular sentence could violate the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. The High Court had held, in the past, that the severity of a sentence could be inherently disproportionate to the seriousness of the crime. However, the Court had never engaged in the kind of proportional analysis offered by Harris and accepted by the appeals court. Specifically, Harris was claiming that he was entitled to a judicial review to determine that the death sentence was proportionate compared to the sentences metedout in cases with similar facts.

Harris argued, in part, that the Court's ruling in Furman v. Georgia (1972) supported a constitutional right to the so-called "comparative review."In Furman, the Court held that the death penalty was unconstitutionalunder the Eighth Amendment, effectively outlawing the death penalty. The Court ruled the same way in two companion cases, Proffitt v. Florida (1976) and Jurek v. Texas (1976). The Court ruled in Gregg v. Georgia (1976) that certain states had cured the infirmities in their death penalty sentencing schemes, effectively reinstating the death penalty. Still, the Gregg Court had not departed from the reasoning employed by the Court in Furman, so the Furman case remained good law, and the Court was forced to meet Harris' argument.

The Furman Court, without a clear majority, essentially had held thatthe death penalty, at the time, "was being imposed so discriminatorily, so wantonly and freakishly, and so infrequently, that any given death sentence wascruel and unusual." After the Furman decision, states changed their capital sentencing statutes to limit the jury's discretion to impose the penalty and to "avoid arbitrary and inconsistent results." States gave to capitaldefendants the right of automatic appeal of a death sentence to a court withstatewide jurisdiction, and they also created a second proceeding, called thesentencing phase, that took place after a guilty verdict in a capital case.The sentencing proceeding allowed the introduction of evidence and testimonyand was designed to ensure that the sentencing authority (the judge or jury)had sufficient information and guidance to make a fair decision on the sentence.

Most states did require the reviewing court to determine whether the sentencewas proportionate to that imposed in similar crimes, but some states did notrequire such a comparative proportionality review. According to Justice White and the majority, the Court in Gregg, Proffitt, and Jurek did not think that such a proportionality review was necessary. Just because some states required a sentence proportionality review in death penalty cases, that did not "mean that such review [was] indispensable." The most important factors that had resolved the constitutional infirmities in the statutory death penalty schemes were the provisions for stricter guidance of the sentencing authority and the availability of appellate review. Comparative proportionality review was not, declared the Court, a factor in the 1976 cases. In1983, the Court in Zant v. Stephens had upheld a death sentence basedin part on the fact that the defendant had a right to comparative proportionality review. However, the right to comparative proportionality review was merely "an additional safeguard against arbitrarily imposed death sentences" and was not "constitutionally required."

The majority analyzed California's capital sentencing scheme and found it constitutionally sound. Although California did not provide for comparative proportionality review, it did provide "checks on arbitrariness" by requiring thesentencing authority to conduct a detailed process in deciding whether to impose the death penalty. The Court concluded that it could not "say that the California procedures provided Harris inadequate protection against the evil identified in Furman." By reversing the appeals court's decision, the Supreme Court placed Harris back on death row.

Justice Stevens concurred in the judgment, but he agreed with only part of the majority's reasoning. To Stevens, the Court's own precedent indicated that"meaningful" appellate review was required in death penalty cases. Stevens was not convinced, though, that comparative proportionality was "the only method by which an appellate court can avoid the danger that the imposition of thedeath sentence in a particular case, or a particular class of cases, will beso extraordinary as to violate the Eighth Amendment."

Justice Brennan authored a long, passionate dissent in which Justice Marshalljoined. In the estimation of Brennan and Marshall, the minimal procedures that the majority required in capital sentencing were not enough to prevent thearbitrary and capricious imposition of the death penalty. Brennan was concerned mainly about the possibility of racial discrimination in the applicationof the death penalty. Additional concerns for Brennan included the discriminatory imposition of the death penalty based on gender, socioeconomic status, and location within a state.

Brennan observed that most states required comparative proportionality reviewin capital case sentencing. This fact convinced Brennan that comparative review "serve[d] to eliminate some, if only a small part, of the irrationality that infect[ed] the . . . imposition of the death sentences throughout the various States." Thus, reasoned Brennan, such review should be required in capital case sentencing. Brennan discussed the teachings of various legal commentators on the topic of the death penalty and cited cases in which men were putto death on questionable grounds. Reviewing the proportionality of a death sentence by comparing it to the sentence imposed in cases with similar facts was "clearly no panacea," but "such review often serve[d] to identify the mostextreme examples of disproportionality among similarly situated defendants."To the dissent, there was no reason not to require comparative proportionality review, especially when death sentences were being vacated in states that required it. Even if Brennan and Marshall did not believe that "the death penalty is in all circumstances cruel and unusual punishment," they "could not join in such unstudied decision making."

Harris continued to file habeas corpus petitions in an attempt to avert his sentence. His sentence was stayed four times. In April of 1992, the appeals court stayed his execution and ordered the district court to conduct a hearing to determine whether the use of cyanide gas to kill Harris might constitute cruel and unusual punishment. The U.S. Supreme Court vacated that decision too, and Robert Harris died in the gas chamber at San Quentin Prison in California on 21 April 1992.


Although most states require a court reviewing a death penalty sentence to determine that the sentence is proportional compared to similar crimes, such review is not required because of the holding in the Harris case. A later decision in Harris' case also stands for the proposition that use of gas chambers for executions does not violate the Eighth Amendment's prohibition ofcruel and unusual punishment.


Robert Alton Harris



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