Capital Punishment

That’s the current subject of discussion in my “Law in Society” class. My professor is a liberal (shocker!), as is my TA, so it’s been quite interesting to see which angles they have been pushing on the issue. Right now, we’re reading Craig Haney’s article, “Psychological Secrecy,” in which the author laments how our society renders criminals as “less than human,” and “depicts the killing process as less than grotesque.”

Welcome to class at the UW.

Haney uses the 1992 execution of Robert Alton Harris as the framework for his argument. On July 5, 1978, Harris and his brother decided to steal a getaway car in order to carry out a bank robbery they had planned later that day. They came upon two teenagers, both sophomores in high school, who were sitting in a car at a nearby Jack in the Box. The brothers then commandeered the car at gunpoint and drove to a wooded area with the teens still in the car. The brothers had promised that they wouldn’t hurt the teens, but that promise was broken when Robert Alton Harris proceeded to shoot and kill them both. Later that day, the men carried out the bank robbery, which netted them $2,000 in cash.

More from a 1990 article by Kevin Leary of the San Francisco Chronicle (found through ProQuest):

Later, after he was arrested, Robert Harris boasted to a cellmate that he told the terrified Baker boy to “quit crying and die like a man.” And when the boy started to pray, Harris said, “God can’t help you now, boy; you’re going to die.”

After killing the two boys, according to testimony, the Harris brothers drove to a girlfriend’s apartment, where Robert finished the rest of the murdered boys’ half-eaten hamburgers and flicked bits of gore from his pistol barrel. He laughed and bragged about how he had killed them and giggled at what it would be like to be a police officer telling the victims’ families that the boys had been murdered.

In other words, Robert Alton Harris was vile scum.

That’s not how Craig Haney see it, however. In his article, he decides not to talk about Harris the murderer, but Harris the victim of a troubled childhood. In Haney’s words, he focuses on the “significant psychological events that helped to shape his life.”

In section today, my TA said that he literally cried when reading Haney’s article. Not for the victims, mind you, but for Robert Alton Harris, the man who was executed for brutally murdering two teenagers.

Again, welcome to class at the UW.

I will never understand the mentality of someone who cries for the murderer rather than the victim. Never.

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10 Responses to Capital Punishment

  1. Eric says:

    Did you actually read that article? Harris’ background was not merely troubled, he was abandoned, schizophrenic and never treated, imprisoned, and abused. With that background anyone would be expected to turn out criminal. If you faced these obstacles instead of being given (what I assume) all the advantages of a white middle class male could you say you wouldn’t end up the same. I cried for Harris because we as a society let him down but I still mourn the victims. But imagine a life a fear, anger, and hate, where all is you know and tell me how many choices you have.

    Harris was not intrinsically evil ind. who is morally different than the average person. He was just subjected to the pressures of a oppressive situation that you are lucky as hell to have never experienced for a single day of your life. Think about that before you assume people are ‘scum’.

  2. Nick says:

    “With that background anyone would be expected to turn out criminal.”

    There are thousands upon thousands of kids who have had that happen to them, and they don’t go out and murder innocent human beings because of it. That’s all I have to say to you on the issue.

  3. Eric says:

    Thousands of kids are left in a field by their parents at 13 after living in poverty and being abused. Then are diagnosed with schizophrenia in prison but are never treated only exacerbating the situation. Schizophrenia so extreme he began to sexually mutilate himself.

    That would be a nice counter argument, if it were anyway based in truth instead of unproven assumptions. While many people, not only children, face hardships, Harris case is an extreme in the sheer number and severity of factors that played a role in his life. I doubt thousands upon thousands face his circumstances but if you have any proof other than that you assume its true so it is, I’d be more than happy to rethink my opinion.

  4. Nick says:

    You’re saying his actions were excusable because he had childhood abuse issues and extreme schizophrenia? That’s sure what it sounds like.

    And no, of course thousands of kids haven’t experienced Harris’s EXACT predicament, but many HAVE experienced horrendous abuse, as well as poverty and abandonment, and not gone out and murdered people.

  5. Nick says:

    Btw, out of curiosity, what led you to my site?

  6. Eric says:

    I am in no way saying murder is excusable. But neither is calling him scum. At the point or murder in his life because of the circumstances forced upon him in his early life, I do not believe he had a stable enough state of mind in knowing the consequences of his actions.

    And while many people experience some of these factors who dont commit murder, very very few face the level and number or factors of Harris(Fetal alcohol syndrome, untreated schizophrenia, physical abuse, witnessing sexual abuse(I believe), abandonment, drug abuse) and of those very few who face the level and number of factors comparable to Harris, some do commit murder, some are in mental hospitals, some kill themselves, and some may even pull through and live a somewhat normal life.

    An important thing to remember that the factors as they increase their influence is greater. A horrendously abused and abandoned child will in no way compare to Harris circumstances.

    Harris had no choices or power in his early life and we as a society especially the legal system, let him down. And in the end it resulted in the death of 3 people. He was not scum just the product of severe risk factors. Had the prison system he was in help treat his multiple mental issues all of this may havebeen avoided.

    I came along this site looking for related articles on google, btw.

  7. Nick says:

    Well, I respect your opinion and thank you for sharing it. I happen to believe people can overcome their circumstances no matter how difficult, and that there is no excuse for murder. He may not have been of completely sound mind, but he was sane enough to steal a car, kill two teens, and rob a bank. I do not weep for the man, I weep for the two teens who had their life taken from them before they graduated high school.

    Thanks again for your comments.

  8. Allegra says:

    wow! Researching the Robert Alton Harris case, and came across this blog….good job, Nick….any idea how I can pick your reader Eric’s brain? I too feel immense sorrow for how our system has let down countless children that are victims of horrific abuse and grow up to often be worse perpetrators than their abusers.
    I feel very sad for Harris’ state of being..not excusing his actions mind you, absolutely unexcusable, but sad nonetheless!
    Also feel ashamed that this guy received no help, as it is documented that from an early age he was arrested for animal abuse and a previous murder, so there is no doubt that he was failed miserably!

    • Nick says:

      Thanks Allegra! And no, unfortunately I don’t know any way to get in contact with Eric. I guess he could always come back and comment…

  9. Allegra says:

    Hiya’ Nick!
    Thanks for the note, I am up to my eyeballs in research and have begun writing my paper!
    I realized later after posting my last comment that I did not respond to an excellent point that you made about believing that one can overcome circumstances no matter how horrific, I also believe this to be true, however, in Harris’ case, it is my opinion that had anyone intervened while he was enduring the abuse of his childhood, that perhaps he could have indeed overcome those circumstances and not become the “laughing killer”…Much research shows that only after being condemned to death row did he begin to confront the horrors that he experienced as a child and his own heinous behaviors while committing his various crimes. It is my opinion that the death penalty is the result of a retributive society…an eye for an eye as we say…and not necessarily a just punishment, never mind the exorbitant cost of capital cases to taxpayers, I think that justice can be served with multiple life sentences to be served consecutively of course…
    Just a thought…..
    Thanks again for this topic, will visit some of your other topics when I have finished with this assignment!!!!

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