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LAW SPARED HARRIS, NOT MERCY
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LAW SPARED HARRIS, NOT MERCY

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Listen to the 24-year-old sister of one of the murdered boys when the news got out that a federal judge had once again postponed the execution of the killer: ``I was expecting this. I told you guys, I told everybody, it wasn't going to happen. Not with wimpy judges like that and wimpy people in the system.

``The wimpy judge who gave (Robert Harris, the killer) his way - Who cares how sick (Harris) is? Who cares if they want to (claim some) sort of sickness or something? Does that make it OK?'The case in question is singular, if not unique, in the annals of callous brutality. Two brothers, seeking an automobile from which to rob a bank, seized that of two 16-year-old boys who were parked with half-eaten hamburgers. They were ordered to a remote area and there Robert Harris (according to the testimony of his brother) shot one of the boys. The second fled, but Harris pursued him to a bush beneath which he was hiding and killed him. Back in the car, the two brothers finished the hamburgers and then went off to rob the bank. In a few hours they were apprehended; the killer was sentenced to death. That was 12 years ago, and if Judge John Noonan hadn't found for the defense last Friday, Harris would have gone to the gas chamber on Tuesday, the first in 23 years to suffer the death penalty in California.

Now here is a complicating datum. I happen to have known John Noonan. He is not a wimp. I don't know whether he has private opinions on capital punishment. He has very public opinions on abortion (he thinks it is homicide). He is an accomplished theologian; he is a practicing Catholic and a sometime professor of law. He is, I would guess, in the lowest 1 percentile of those who would be influenced by liberal trendiness.

It was something more than that, of course, that caused Mother Teresa to telephone Gov. Deukmejian to plead for clemency for Harris. But then Mother Teresa would not want anybody hanged, not even the devil. And all those ACLU types out there cheering his decision can only have embarrassed John Noonan, because their demonstrations added to the confusion generated by the case.

What was the issue? Whether a ruling by the Supreme Court in 1985, seven years after the trial of Harris, was applicable. That ruling holds that anyone had up for murder is entitled to ``competent' psychiatric defense.

What John Noonan said to the feverish courthouse was: ``The issue before us is not the rightness or wrongness of the death penalty, or its wisdom or unwisdom, or its constitutionality or the unconstitutionality. Our task is to determine if the petitioner's rights under the Constitution have been violated.' He went on to rule that a ``substantial showing' was that competent psychiatrists hadn't been there to give the jury their views. There were two psychiatrists there during the trial. One is dead and the other, the prosecutor pointed out, ``is in Africa.' To which Judge Noonan replied that there are telephones in Africa. To the objection that 12 years had gone by since the jury finding, Noonan said: ``Don't dwell on the 12 years. There was nothing wrong with the delay. It is a popular slogan, but it has no place in a court of law.'

Judge Noonan is right only on the final point: The argument does not have a place in a court of law. Meanwhile, Harris lives, but his life has not been saved by a bleeding heart.

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