Robert Alton Harris was born at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, the fifth of nine children of Kenneth and Evelyn Harris. Kenneth was a sergeant in the United States Army who was awarded a Silver Star and Purple Heart for his service in World War II. Both parents were alcoholics, and Robert reportedly was born two months premature as a result of Kenneth kicking Evelyn in the abdomen; Robert is also reported to have suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome. Robert was especially targeted for abuse by his father, who believed that Robert was conceived in an affair. The Harris family moved to Visalia, California in 1962 following Kenneth Harris’ discharge from the Army. Kenneth Harris was jailed in 1963 for 18 months and again for a longer period of time in 1964, both times for sexually abusing his daughters. With Kenneth in jail, the remaining family members lived a migrant life around the San Joaquin Valley.
Robert spent four months in juvenile hall at age 13 for stealing a car. In 1967, Evelyn abandoned Robert, then 14, in Sacramento and left him to fend for himself. After making his way to Oklahoma to live with his brother and sister, he stole a car and was subsequently arrested in Florida. He spent the next 3 years in the Florida juvenile detention system, but when he turned 19, the system could no longer keep him, and he was sent to Chula Vista, California. At some point Harris married and the couple had a son, Robert, Jr., born in 1974 or 1975. In 1975 while living in a trailer park in Imperial County, Harris beat his brother’s roommate to death, claiming he did so to protect the victim’s wife; however, it was later determined that he beat the victim without provocation. He was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and imprisoned in San Luis Obispo; during his imprisonment Harris’ wife filed for divorce. Harris was paroled in January 1978.
Sometime in May or June 1978, Robert, then aged 25, asked his brother Daniel, 18, for help in planning a bank robbery. On July 2, Daniel stole two guns from a neighbor’s house in Visalia, California, and the two drove to San Diego that night. They spent the next two days purchasing ammunition and practicing the robbery in a rural area near Miramar Lake. On July 5, the Harris brothers happened upon John Mayeski and Michael Baker, both 16, sitting in a green Ford LTD eating hamburgers in a supermarket parking lot in Mira Mesa. Mayeski and Baker were best friends who had planned to spend the day fishing to celebrate Mayeski’s newly acquired driver’s license. Robert Harris commandeered Mayeski’s car and ordered him to drive to Miramar Lake, with Daniel Harris following in another vehicle. Robert Harris told the boys that they would be using the vehicle to rob a bank, but that no one would be hurt. At Miramar Lake, the Harris brothers ordered the boys to kneel, whereupon the boys began to pray. Robert told the boys to “Quit crying, and die like men”, then shot both boys multiple times. The Harris brothers then returned to Robert’s Mira Mesa home and finished the victims’ half-eaten hamburgers while Robert boasted about the killings.
About an hour later, the Harris brothers robbed the Mira Mesa branch of the San Diego Trust and Savings Bank located across the street from where they had abducted Mayeski and Baker, and fled with about $2,000. A witness to the robbery followed the Harrises to their home and notified police. The Harris brothers were arrested less than an hour after the robbery. One of the officers who apprehended the Harris brothers was Steven Baker, father of victim Michael Baker, who at the time was unaware that his son had been killed, let alone by one of the men he was arresting.
The San Diego County 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, Robert Harris was convicted in the San Diego County Superior Court of two counts of murder in the first degree with special circumstances as well as two counts of kidnapping, and was sentenced to death. Daniel Harris was convicted of kidnapping and sentenced to six years in state prison; he was released in 1983.
An appeal for clemency to California governor Pete Wilson – who was mayor of San Diego at the time of the killings – 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. In 1990, federal appeals court judge John T. Noonan, Jr. issued a stay of execution, as Harris argued that childhood brain damage interfered with his judgment during his crimes.
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. PDT, and Harris died at 6:21 a.m. PDT. His body was removed from the chamber at 7:00 a.m. and was taken to a funeral home 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’s execution shall be entered by the Federal courts except upon order of this Court.”
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 everybody dances with the grim reaper,” a misquotation of a line from the 1991 film Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey. The misquoted line (“You might be a king or a little street sweeper, but sooner or later you dance with the reaper.”) was itself an adaptation of the traditional German Totentanz (danse macabre) illustration caption “Wer war der Thor, wer der Weise[r], wer der Bettler oder Kaiser? Ob arm, ob reich, im Tode gleich.” (“Who was the fool, who the wise man, who the beggar or the Emperor? Whether rich or poor, [all are] equal in death.”). Harris’ execution was the subject of a 1995 Dutch documentary film, Procedure 769, witness to an execution.
- January, 15, 1953
- Fort Bragg, North Carolina
- April, 21, 1992
- San Quentin State Prison San Quentin, California
Cause of Death
- Executed in gas chamber