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Monday, April 2, 2012

See a Gas Chamber Execution via the Words of Those Who Were There: Procedure 769

Posted By on Mon, Apr 2, 2012 at 9:30 AM

  • California Department of Corrections

When Dutch filmmaker Jaap van Hoewijk heard a radio report in 1992 that the first California execution in 25 years was to take place, and that 50 people were to be present as witnesses, he was taken aback. It prompted him to make the film Procedure 769: The Witnesses to the Execution, a documentary on the reactions of those who were present for the gas chamber execution of Robert Alton Harris at San Quentin State Prison. The procedure in its title refers to the state's internal code for execution. The film screens Tuesday (April 3) in Koret Auditorium at the main branch of the San Francisco Public Library.

Harris was put to death for the murder of two teenage boys (one of which was coincidentally the son of an arresting officer) in 1978. His was California's first execution after the moratorium was lifted, and the last before the gas chamber was changed from being the state's default execution method to merely an option.

The documentary neither advocates nor condemns capital punishment, yet van Hoewijk's interviewees -- family members from each side, the warden, a San Quentin psychologist -- include vivid description of what happens in the gas chamber. After seeing the film, one reviewer on asks, "Is capital punishment a hallmark of a civilized society? I suggest you watch the film and reevaluate your stance." That person also notes, "It's a very human film. It is rare that a film comes along that invokes such difficult emotions to deal with."

The last public execution (a hanging) in the United States was in 1936 before laws were passed aiming to protect the dignity of the condemned. A number of people have advocated making executions public again so everyone can witness "the public's business," as described by Phil Donahue, one of those who led a campaign to televise an execution.

"These are decisions which you voted upon," Donahue was quoted as saying on the website Fight the Death Penalty. "They are decided by the people, paid for by the people, carried out in the name of the people."

Capital punishment on this continent goes back nearly as far as its being inhabited by Europeans. The first state-sponsored execution in what would become the United States was carried out in Jamestown on Captain George Kendall in 1608 by firing squad. Over the next 400 years, it evolved into the socially divisive issue that it is today. But the presentation of capital punishment in this documentary is neither positive nor negative. The reactions from the Harris witnesses show the one truth of taking part in such an event: Witnessing an execution may not wholly change how a person feels about it, but it's likely to affect them profoundly nonetheless.

"The passion, for the most part, in that room, was passion to kill," says one witness interviewed in the film.

Another witness, a young woman, echoes this: "I don't feel sorry at all for this man. I have no remorse for witnessing this execution. I would do it again and again."

Still another, an older man, was visibly shaken, saying "It was so horrible I didn't even have the words to describe it. ... I couldn't even talk about it for three or four days."

The first use of a gas chamber was on San Francisco gangster Gee Jon in 1921. Wardens attempted to fill Gee's cell with gas while he slept, presumably as a measure of compassion, but when the gaseous cyanide failed to stay contained within Gee's drafty jail cell, wardens were prompted to develop a more airtight execution chamber. The gas chamber continued to be a primary method of execution in many prisons until the early 1990s, when lethal injection began to be implemented.

Rick Moran wrote a column (which includes graphic and disturbing descriptions and links to at least one video) in 2005 called "Public Executions: Live and in Color?" for American Thinker. It raises some intense questions many of us would rather not think about, and it illustrates some scenarios most of us would never want to see.

Procedure 769: Witnesses to an Execution starts at 5:30 p.m. in Koret Auditorium at the main branch of the San Francisco Public Library, 100 Larkin St. (at Grove), S.F. Admission is free.

For more events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook.

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Chris Torres


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