Further information on UA 63/90 (AMR 51/01/90, 23 February and follow-up AMR 51/09/90, 3 April) - USA (California): death penalty: Robert Alton Harris
EXTERNAL (for general distribution) AI Index: AMR 51/39/92
17 March 1992
Please bring this action to the attention of the person responsible for outreach work in
your section. Letters from politicians, church leaders, judges, lawyers and other
professional groups would be especially useful. These groups should also be encouraged
to contact their counterparts in California to urge that they speak out against the execution
of Robert Harris.
Further information on UA 63/90 (AMR 51/01/90, 23 February 1990) and follow-up AMR 51/09/90,
3 April 1990 - Death Penalty
USA (California): Robert Alton HARRIS
Robert Alton Harris is scheduled to be executed in California on 21 April 1992. If carried
out, this would be the first execution in the state since 1967. Robert Harris has been
under sentence of death for thirteen years. He was convicted of the kidnap, robbery and
murder of two teenage boys in July 1978 and was sentenced to death on 6 March 1979. Harris
came within 12 hours of being executed in April 1990.
New evidence not available to the jury at Robert Harris' trial indicates strong grounds
for granting clemency. Tests performed on Robert Harris after he was sentenced to death
revealed organic brain damage of a severity likely to have affected his ability to reflect
on actions, weigh consequences, plan or organize, or reason rationally at the time of the
There is evidence that Robert Harris' mother drank heavily throughout her pregnancy, and
that he shows some of the physical and cognitive characteristics of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome
(FAS). Both parents were alcoholics. Robert Harris was born more than two months prematurely
after his mother was kicked in the stomach by her husband. At the age of two he was beaten
unconscious by his father and required hospital treatment. He was beaten throughout his
early childhood by his father and a step-father.
At the age of 14, Robert Harris was abandoned by his mother. He lived rough for a while
near his brother's house, then tried to settle with a sister in Oklahoma. When he was 15
he was caught with others driving a stolen car. The others were claimed by their families
but he was not. He was sentenced to four years at a federal youth center. There he was
diagnosed pre-psychotic, schizophrenic, suicidal and self-destructive. At 19 he was released
with a recommendation that he seek treatment for mental health problems. There is no evidence
that he received treatment.
In addition to FAS, and the physical beatings he received as a child, Robert Harris is
known to have sniffed gasoline, glue and paint fumes from the age of eight or nine.
While evidence of mental impairment and physical abuse does not excuse the crime of murder,
it does provide some explanation as to why such a crime occurred. The jury at Robert Harris'
trial did not learn the full extent of his ill-treatment as a child or his mental disabilities.
These are strong reasons not to impose society's ultimate penalty and Amnesty International
believes that the interests of justice would best be served by commuting Robert Harris'
death sentence on humanitarian grounds.
In December 1991, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit was split by a 13 to 13 tie
vote over whether to grant Robert Harris a court hearing to determine whether he was deprived
of effective psychiatric assistance at his original trial. The tied vote meant, in effect,
a refusal to grant the full evidentiary hearing Harris' lawyers had sought.
Commenting on the tied vote, Judge Stephen Reinhardt, a member of the Ninth Circuit Court
of Appeals, wrote in dissent: "Can we really justify the taking of a human life in a case
in which, for example... up to half the members of this court of twenty-eight may believe
that the law prohibits us from doing so? Should life or death depend on the Page 2 of 2FU 63/90
vote of one judge among many, when there are legitimate arguments on both sides and the
decision could as easily go the other way?"
Robert Harris will appeal to Governor Pete Wilson for clemency. There are no clear criteria
by which the California authorities consider clemency applications. Governor Wilson is
being urged to convene a panel of experts and to hear testimony from all interested parties.
Governor Wilson would require approval to commute Harris' death sentence from a majority
of the seven-member California Supreme Court. This is because Harris has two prior felony
BACKGROUND INFORMATION, INTERNATIONAL LAW CONCERNS
Amnesty International opposes the death penalty in all cases as a violation of the right
to life and the right not to be subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or
punishment, as proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
California's death penalty law was enacted in 1977 and 1978. At the beginning of 1992 there
were 308 prisoners under sentence of death. The method of execution is lethal gas.
Amnesty International believes that Robert Harris' execution would be inconsistent with
internationally recognized minimum standards safeguarding the rights of those facing the
death penalty. In May 1989, the United Nations Economic and Social Council (EcoSoc) adopted
Resolution 1989/64 which advocates "eliminating the death penalty for persons suffering
from mental retardation or extremely limited mental competence, whether at the stage of
sentence or execution."
International treaties and standards encourage governments to restrict the use of the death
penalty with a view to its ultimate abolition. United Nations General Assembly Resolution
2857 (XXVI), adopted in December 1971, affirms that: "...in order fully to guarantee the
right to life, as provided for in article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,
the main objective to be pursued is that of progressively restricting the number of offences
for which capital punishment may be imposed, with a view to the desirability of abolishing
this punishment in all countries." Nearly half the countries of the world have now abolished
the death penalty in law or practice: a trend particularly marked in both Western and Eastern
Amnesty International believes that California's move to resume executions after 25 years
would be a retrograde step for human rights. It would be contrary to the spirit of article
4 of the American Convention on Human Rights (ACHR) and article 6 of the International
Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which encourage progress towards abolition
of the death penalty. In 1977 the USA signed both the ACHR and the ICCPR, but neither has
RECOMMENDED ACTION: Please send telegrams/faxes/telephone calls/express and airmail
letters (in ENGLISH, if possible):
- urging Governor Wilson to convene a panel of experts to consider all aspects of Robert
Harris' petition for clemency, and to hear testimony from all interested parties. Urging
that clemency be granted;
- expressing concern at the evidence that Robert Harris has suffered from severe mental
health problems, including fetal alcohol syndrome and organic brain damage and was badly
physically abused as a child. While these factors do not excuse the crime, they present
strong grounds for commuting Harris' death sentence;
- citing United Nations EcoSoc Resolution 1989/64 which urges "Eliminating the death penalty
for persons suffering from mental retardation or extremely limited mental competence,
whether at the stage of sentence or execution";
- mentioning the deep division of opinion within the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which
denied Robert Harris a full evidentiary hearing, reportedly by a tied vote of 13 to 13
in December 1991. Express alarm that California would consider executing Robert Harris
in the face of such divergence of opinion within California's most senior federal judiciary;
- expressing concern and dismay at California's retention of the death penalty, and at
the move to resume executions after 25 years. Urging California not to take this retrograde
step. Citing international treaties and standards which encourage governments to restrict
the use of the death penalty with a view to its ultimate abolition.
Page 3 of 2FU 63/90
1) The Hon Pete Wilson
Governor of California
Sacramento, CA 95814, USA
Telegrams: Governor Wilson, Sacramento,
CA 95814, USA
Telephone: +1 (916) 445 2841
Faxes: +1 (916) 445 4633
Salutation: Dear Governor
2) The Hon Daniel E Lungren
Attorney General of California
1515 K Street, Suite 511
Sacramento, CA 95814, USA
Telegrams: Attorney General Lungren,
Sacramento, CA 95814, USA
Telephone: +1 (916) 324 5437
Faxes: +1 (916) 324 5205
Salutation: Dear Attorney General
COPIES OF YOUR APPEALS TO:
the following newspapers - letters and articles should go to The Editor, marked 'For
Los Angeles Times
Times Mirror Square
Los Angeles, CA 90053
FAX: +1 (213) 237 7190
San Francisco Chronicle
925 Mission Street
San Francisco, CA 94103
FAX: +1 (415) 781 1542
21st and Q streets
Sacramento, CA 95816
FAX: +1 (916) 321 1306
and to diplomatic representatives of the USA in your country.
PLEASE SEND APPEALS IMMEDIATELY. Check with the International Secretariat, or your section
office, if sending appeals after 20 April 1992.