Fight over execution by cyanide gas enters court Ruling could have national effect


SAN FRANCISCO -- California's gas chamber is on trial in a constitutional challenge that could bring an end to legal execution by cyanide poisoning.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California opened its attack yesterday with the emotion-charged testimony of the Rev. Leon Harris, who helped his cousin, Robert Alton Harris, face his final hours in April 1992.

Observers wrote at the time that the Baptist preacher, an ex-police officer, turned from the dying man to other family members witnessing the execution. But Leon Harris admitted yesterday that watching Robert Harris drooling and groaning had been too much for him.

"I chickened out. I turned because I couldn't stand it," he said.

His cousin's groan became his own recurring nightmare, he said -- "the same moan that I've been hearing in my bedroom for the last year and a half."

The testimony of Dr. Kent R. Olson, medical director of the San Francisco Poison Control Center, stood in sharp contrast -- a mostly dry but occasionally bizarre explanation of the way cyanide causes death.

The non-jury trial is being conducted by U.S. District Judge Marilyn Hall Patel. As is common in such trials, there were no opening statements, so presentation of the state's side of the story was deferred, probably until next week.

However, one key dispute -- regarding the duration of suffering during death by cyanide gas -- became apparent yesterday as the state's death penalty coordinator cross-examined Dr. Olson. Dane Gillette successfully pressed Dr. Olson to concede his uncertainty about what can be felt during much of the transition from life to death.

Judge Patel's decision, which is likely to be handed down weeks or even months after the trial closes, could lead ultimately to a national ban on death by lethal gas. That would be the result if she were to find the gas chamber to be cruel and unusual punishment, in violation of the constitutional Eighth Amendment, and if higher federal courts were to adopt her view.

Four other states still have gas chambers. But only one, Maryland, does not give death row inmates the option of choosing to be executed by lethal injection. California instituted the lethal injection option in 1992.

Dr. Olson testified that execution by cyanide gas can inflict "cruel and inappropriate" pain for several minutes, until the point of lifelessness. He described "air hunger," suffocation and terror, compared to "being held underwater" until drowning.

He said a committee of the American Veterinary Medical Association this year disapproved the use of cyanide in killing dogs.

Dr. Olson also described a 1931 U.S. War Department study that showed death by cyanide gas required a higher concentration of the poison than scientists of the day had thought necessary.

Experimenter Joseph Barcroft, who reported the study in a scientific journal, entered a gas chamber with a dog. Facing each other, man and dog breathed a mixture of 500 to 600 parts per million of cyanide gas, double the presumed lethal dose. Barcroft mimicked the dog's spasms so that differences in muscle activity wouldn't skew the results.

After one minute and 15 seconds, the dog became unconscious. Mr. Barcroft left the chamber 15 seconds later. Three seconds after that, the dog was believed to be dead. But the dog recovered, and Mr. Barcroft lived to write about the experience.

Mr. Gillette declined to disclose what concentration of cyanide is used in the gas at San Quentin.

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