On April 21, 1992 Robert Alton Harris finally walked to his death in San Quentin for the brutal murder of two boys back in 1978. This was the first execution in 25 years in the State of California and for 14 years the Harris case was a top news story on radio and television across the United States. Procedure 769 (which is the administrative name for the death penalty) makes a major contribution to the topical discussion on the death penalty by focusing on the people who witness an execution, in this case that of Robert Alton Harris and there was no doubt about his guilt.
“Procedure 769” features 11 people who were present at the time. Among them San Quentin’s former warden who supervised the execution, the father, mother and sister of one of the slain boys, a journalist, official witnesses such as the current sheriff of San Diego, a VIP witness (the only person present who is actually against death penalty), a psychiatrist, a brother and a distant cousin (a church minister from Alabama) of Harris. All of these people had mixed and often very contradictory feelings about watching Harris’ execution.
Throughout the film, we are made aware of the vital role the media played in the case and the impact the media had on public opinion. One of the few images of Alton Harris widely spread around was his grinning Harris at the moment of his arrest. This picture made him known as the ‘laughing killer’, a great image for tabloids and talk shows. But in the end one has to ask the question of what has this execution brought us? Justice, a political career or a trauma?
In 1996 Procedure 769 did splendid as a theatrical release and on television World Wide. It was well acclaimed at numerous Film Festivals and it won the Silver Spire Award San Francisco Int. Film Festival.