April 21, 1992: Murderer Robert Alton Harris Executed


WHAT HAPPENED? (1)


Robert Alton was executed on April 21, 1992 for the 1978 murders of 2 teenage boys in San Diego, becoming the first criminal executed in California since 1967. Alton was in trouble with the police for his entire life for stealing cars, manslaughter, and other crimes.


On July 5, 1978, Harris and his brother got into the car that 2 teen boys were driving, ordered them to drive to a remote area, and killed them. They used the car as a getaway car for a bank robbery. He was caught less than an hour after the robbery.


He was sentenced to death on March 6, 1979, but after a series of appeals and stays of execution, he was not executed until April 21, 1992.

LIFE AS A CRIMINAL (1)


Harris was the 5th of 9 children, born in North Carolina to an alcoholic United States Army sergeant and an alcoholic mother. He suffered fetal alcohol syndrome from his mother's drinking during her pregnancy, and his father abused him mercilessly because he believed he had been conceived via an affair. After his father was discharged from the army, where he received various awards for his service, he was jailed twice for sexually abusing his daughters. We can give him the designation of "trash father".


When Harris was 13, he spent 4 months in a juvenile hall for stealing a car, where he was repeatedly raped. At 14, his mother completely abandoned him, leaving him to fend for himself. He made his way to Oklahoma to live with his brother and sister, and stole another car, and was subsequently arrested. He stayed in a juvenile detention center until he was 19, when the system could no longer keep him.


In 1973, he married and had a son named Robert Jr. The year after his son's birth, he was convicted of voluntary manslaughter for beating his brother's roommate to death. He claimed it was to protect his wife, but it was determined later that she was never in danger and the beating came without provocation. While serving his time, his wife filed for divorce. In 1978, 3 years after ending a man's life with his bare hands, he was paroled. Like his father, I think we can give him the designation of "general trash human".

THE MURDERS (1)


In 1978, the same year he was paroled for "voluntary manslaughter" or as I'd prefer to call it, "brutal murder", Harris asked his 18-year-old brother if he would like to help him rob a bank. Apparently, his brother, Daniel, said yes, as he stole 2 guns from his neighbor on July 2nd, and then the brothers spend the next few days purchasing ammunition and "practicing the robbery". (Which is kind of hilarious if you think about them role playing a robbery. No, no, no Daniel! You need to say 'give me the money' with more conviction! From the top.)


On July 5, 1978, they acted out their plan. The brothers happened upon 2 16-year-old boys, John Mayeski and Michael Baker, sitting in their Ford LTD eating hamburgers in a parking lot. Mayeski had just gotten his driver's license, and the boys, best friends, were planning to finish their food and spend the day fishing to celebrate.


But the Harris brothers had other plans. Robert commandeered Mayeski's car and ordered him to drive to Miramar Lake, with Daniel following behind them in a different car. While driving, Robert told the boys he would just need their car to rob a bank, but would not hurt them. But once they arrived at the lake, he ordered them to kneel. The boys, terrified, began to pray. Before killing them, he told them to "quit crying, and die like men". He shot them multiple times, and then returned to their home, bragging about the killings and finishing their victims' hamburgers.


About an hour after the murders, the brothers robbed the Mira Mesa branch of the San Diego Trust and Savings Bank, located just across the street from where they abducted the boys, fleeing with a sweet, sweet $2,000. Someone witnessed the robbery and followed them home, and notified the police. They were arrested less than an hour after the robbery.


Horrifyingly, one of the cops who arrested the brothers was Steven Baker, the father of one of the victims. At the time he arrested them, not only did he not know his son had been killed, but also didn't know that his son's killer was one of the men he was arresting.


I can't stop thinking about how poorly planned out this entire crime was. They had a car, so they only stole the car so their car wouldn't be traced to them, imaginably. So they steal a car and murder 2 teenage kids for it. Then they rob a bank and steal a couple thousand bucks, which you have to imagine was less than they were expecting? And now, they have the money, they have a car that wouldn't be tied to them and they... drive to their own home? There's no point in having a car that wouldn't be traced back to you if you go back to your house after! They planned this robbery for days and were arrested less than 60 minutes after the crime. Terrible.

THE TRIAL & CONVICTION (1)


Robert Harris was charged with felony auto theft, kidnapping, murder and burglary from the San Diego County District Attorney's office, and the U.S. District Attorney's office filed bank robbery charges against him. On March 6, 1979, he was convicted of 2 counts of murder in the first degree, 2 counts of kidnapping, and was sentenced to death. His brother, who was apparently just doing what Robert told him to do, was convicted of kidnapping and sentenced only to 6 years. He was released in 1983.


Harris made an appeal for clemency to California governor Pete Wilson, but it was rejected on live TV. Wilson read Harris' statement about his abusive childhood, but Wilson said, "as great as is my compassion for Robert Harris the child, I cannot excuse or forgive the choice made by Robert Harris the man". And isn't that just it? So many one-off killers, serial killers, mass shooters, etc. have terrible, sad, heartbreaking back stories. But the compassion wears off once you decide to take someone else's life because of it. As sad as it is, there are countless children who grew up in a situation like Robert Harris did who didn't end up murdering 2 innocent teenagers. Compassion only goes so far, and typically has a hard stop at murder.


The Supreme Court of California upheld his death sentence in 1981. It went back and forth for awhile for different reasons, one was when a federal appeals court judge issued a stay of execution, arguing that childhood brain damage interfered with his judgement while committing the crimes. It was further pushed back while the constitutionality of death by gas chamber was argued. The issue of Harris' execution was argued up until the day before he was set to die, but the night before, his execution was allowed to proceed.


For his last meal, he had a 21-piece bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken, 2 large Domino's pizzas, a bag of jelly beans, a 6-pack of Pepsi, and a pack of cigarettes. One has to wonder in what time frame he had to finish that.


He was strapped into the gas chamber on April 21 at 3:49 AM before being stopped yet again, seconds before the execution, for a last ditch effort to stay the execution. At 6:01 AM, he was escorted back to the gas chamber. The execution order was given at 6:07 AM, and he died at 6:21 AM. (I will say: regardless of your feelings about the death penalty, strapping someone in and then saving them with seconds before they die, only to lose your appeal and have to be strapped back in and killed seems just a hare cruel and unusual.)


Harris is remembered for his last words, "You can be a king or a street sweeper, but everybody dances with the grim reaper" which is a misquote of a line used in the 1991 film "Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey".

THE FAMILIES REMEMBER (2)


Michael Baker's mother, Sharron Mankins, remembered that the last time she saw her son was on July 4th when they went to watch the neighborhood fireworks. Michael left the hous early the next morning, and was killed that day. Mankins and her husband, Sam, said a few days before Harris' execution that the pain of losing Michael was compounded with the years-long back and forth in the justice system.


After the loss of Michael, Sam described being in a "traumatized, in such a helpless depressed state. We just felt like we were totally deserted. It's an awful, terrible feeling." He is remembered by his mother and step father as a neat, easy going kid who was just started to get interested in girls and getting his drivers' license.


His father, Steven, who arrested Harris, said that his son was developing interest in police work but despite that possible connection, the 2 weren't very close. He said: "In hindsight, you look back and really kick yourself in the tail. I wish things could have been different." He always hoped his relationship with his son would improve throughout his life, something he will never know because of Harris.


The family was hit with tragedy again when, 5 years after Michael's death, their daughter Tammy was thrown off of the back of a motorcycle and killed the night before her 18th birthday. Sharron and Sam, who each had 3 children of their own when they married, described their house as "The Brady Bunch". Within 5 years, Sharron's side of the family was down to just 1.


Sharron and John, the other victim's, mother leaned on one another for strength. They stayed together the night they hoped their boys would come home, and waited together for Harris' execution. Kay, who was fighting a long battle with cancer, hoped to stay alive long enough so she could see her son's killer executed. Unfortunately, she died a year before his execution.


Steven Baker witnessed Harris' execution. Sharron went, as well, with her stepdaughter Laura and John's sister, Marilyn. They worried when there was a stay of execution after getting Harris strapped in and the witnesses lined up, but ultimately, on April 21, 1992, 28 years ago today, they witnesses what they wanted to witness from the moment they found out their loved one had died at the hand of that man: Justice.

REFERENCES:

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Alton_Harris

2. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1992/04/18/for-victims-mother-killer-has-lived-too-long/de20f39a-dd95-4332-9bf0-ac8a874ca8a0/


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