Commentary: California's death row keeps growing

The power of the California attorney general became clear early on the morning of April 21, 1992. So did the lack of it.

In the gas chamber at San Quentin State Prison, a mechanical contraption pumped sulfuric acid into two vats beneath where Robert Alton Harris sat strapped to a metal chair. The warden was on the verge of releasing the cyanide pellets that would react with the acid and create the gas that would end Harris' life.

Then a phone next to the death chamber rang.

"Oh God," cried a woman, one of the 48 witnesses to what was to be California's first execution in 25 years.

It took me, another of the witnesses, a few moments to figure out what was happening. Then Attorney General Dan Lungren, standing not far from me, knew exactly what had occurred. He scowled. The phone would ring for only one reason. A court had issued a last-second stay.

What happened 18½ years ago resonates today as Republican Steve Cooley tries to make an issue of Democrat Kamala Harris' opposition to capital punishment in their run for attorney general.

"I assure you I will take a leadership role to make sure that the death penalty will be enforced," Cooley, the Los Angeles district attorney, promised in a debate earlier this week.

Harris, the San Francisco District Attorney, called it "a flawed system," citing death row inmates who have been exonerated. But she also promised to uphold the law by ensuring that her deputies continue to prosecute death penalty appeals.

Harris and Cooley are career-long prosecutors. They understand the law far better than the rest of us. And they know certain facts, or should.

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