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Death Penalty MitigationA Handbook for Mitigation Specialists, Investigators, Social Scientists, and Lawyers$

Jose B. Ashford and Melissa Kupferberg

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780195329469

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2014

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195329469.001.0001

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(p.191) Appendix Court Descriptions of the Case of Robert Alton Harris

(p.191) Appendix Court Descriptions of the Case of Robert Alton Harris

Death Penalty Mitigation
Oxford University Press

Court Summary of Guilt Phase

In May or June of 1978 defendant first asked his brother Daniel for help in a planned bank robbery. fn. 2 Defendant next raised the subject in July of 1978 while visiting Daniel in Visalia. 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 brothers then drove to the Mira Mesa area of [28 Cal. 3d 944] San Diego County and spent the night in a house defendant had been sharing with his girl friend. (p.192)

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. They walked up a fire trail, fired a few rounds, but left when a vehicle approached. They next reconnoitered the area around their intended target—the San Diego Trust and Savings Bank on Mira Mesa Boulevard.

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 [28 Cal. 3d 945] 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. (p.193) 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. fn. 3 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 4:00 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 7:00 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 1:00 p.m. on 7 July 1978—an hour before he was arraigned—defendant confessed to Officer Ronald Newman. fn. 4

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 kidnapped 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.” [28 Cal. 3d 946]

Testifying in his own behalf at the guilt phase, defendant admitted the bank robbery but denied kidnapping, robbing and murdering the two boys. He explained his pretrial confessions as attempts to protect his brother.

[Quotation from People v. Harris, 28 Cal. 3d 935 (1981)].

Court Summary of Penalty Phase

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 (p.194) 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.

Defendant continued to lead a life of violence while in jail awaiting trial on the present charges.

Defendant was housed in a “tank” consisting of a dayroom and adjoining cells. A guard approaching the tank overheard a conversation between defendant and other inmates in which reference was made to a knife. When the guard left to advise his superior a search should be conducted, one of the inmates, realizing a search was likely, told defendant to hide the “shank.” fn. 5 Defendant went to his cell, removed from a box a piece of metal, which was approximately 10 inches long and sharpened on one edge. He then returned to the dayroom and concealed the shank underneath a table top where guards found it minutes later. [28 Cal. 3d 947]

The next day defendant presided over a kangaroo court and found another inmate, Keith G., guilty of cowardice. Defendant told Keith he would have to submit to sodomy or lose his life. Keith was then taken into a cell, forced to lie face down on the bunk with his trousers pulled down and forcibly subjected to sodomy by three inmates, including defendant. Later in the day his assailants demanded Keith play strip poker with them. When Keith would not pick up his cards he was taken into the shower room and forced to orally copulate defendant and another inmate. Removed from the tank when he reported the assaults, Keith later encountered defendant in a holding area. Despite the presence of guards, defendant loudly and repeatedly threatened Keith’s life.

Six days after the assaults upon Keith were reported, defendant’s cell was searched. In the toilet a large water-soaked wad of tissue was found. Wrapped in the tissue was a 17-inch wire with looped ends in which the short pencils available to inmates might be inserted as handles. The guard who found this garrote said, “Look what I found, Bobby.” Defendant, laughing, replied, “Aw, looks like you have me now.”

Defendant’s testimony during the penalty phase indicated he had a dismal childhood. When defendant was approximately 11 years old, his father served (p.195) two separate prison terms for having sexual relations with defendant’s sisters. The family then followed the harvest from state to state with defendant’s mother and her boyfriend. Defendant’s schooling ended in the seventh grade. Defendant’s mother forced him to leave the family when he was 14, saying he was not working hard enough. He soon stole a car and served four years in federal institutions for that crime, escape and a separate instance of attempted escape. He was subsequently imprisoned for the voluntary manslaughter of James Wheeler. Defendant was 26 years old at the time of trial.

Defendant admitted his testimony at the guilt phase—that he had nothing to do with killing the boys—was a lie. Changing his story, defendant testified he had not planned to kill the boys, that his brother had fired first, and “the next thing I knew I was shooting them myself.”

Defendant claimed he was “sorry” about the murders. In support of this claim, defendant called Deputy Sheriff Michael Mendoza who testified that when he inquired into defendant’s emotional state after he cut his wrist and reportedly attempted to stab himself with a pencil, [28 Cal. 3d 948] defendant appeared remorseful. However, defendant admitted on cross-examination he had told a jail visitor his attorney wanted him to express remorse and he was not going to do so.

[Quoted from People v. Harris, 28 Cal. 3d 935 (1981)]