Robert Alton Harris is executed in California’s gas chamber after 13 years on death row. This was California’s first execution since former Chief Justice Rose Bird and two other state supreme court justices, Joseph Grodin and Cruz Reynoso, had been rejected by California voters. From 1979 to 1986, the Bird court had reversed 64 out of the 68 death penalty cases on appeal. Supporters of capital punishment initiated a campaign against Bird, Grodin, and Reynoso, successfully ousting them from the court in 1986. Republican Governor George Deukmejian then appointed three justices in favor of the death penalty to take their places.
On July 5, 1978, Harris abducted John Mayeski and Michael Baker, both 16, from a fast-food restaurant in Mira Mesa, California. After he shot both Mayeski and Baker, hethen ate their hamburgers. In an amazing coincidence, the father of one of the boys pulled Harris over for a traffic violation later that same day.
Attorneys for Harris sought to avoid the death penalty by arguing that the killer suffered organic brain damage as a result of fetal alcohol syndrome. The case became a focal point for death penalty abolitionists, who held rallies across the state. Amnesty International even tried to lobby on Harris’ behalf, but their efforts proved unsuccessful and Harris was executed on April 21. Since then, California has had a steady stream of executions but remains far behind Texas and Florida in the number of inmates put to death.
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