This article touches on only three of the many issues raised by the Harris case. First, it explores the appropriateness of Harris' section 1983 class action filed on behalf of all California death row inmates. Specifically, Harris argued that death by lethal gas constitutes cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The Supreme Court characterized the section 1983 action as an attempt to avoid the application of McCleskey v. Zant, which bars successive claims for relief. By way of an extensive historical analysis of each, this article examines the respective roles of section 1983 and habeas corpus in order to determine which was the appropriate vehicle for Harris' lawsuit. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court did not rest its decision to overrule Harris' stay upon McCleskey; rather, it applied an equitable standard to review Harris' request for an injunction against execution by means of lethal gas. This article also analyzes Harris' use of Teague v. Lanel as both a sword and a shield, enabling him to simultaneously challenge retroactive application of the McCleskey standard to his case, while invoking the protection of an evolving standard for cruel and unusual punishment. Finally, this article examines the controversial decision by the Supreme Court to bar further stays "except upon order of this Court." Although the Supreme Court's edict has come under fire from various constitutional scholars, it has been praised by both scholars and practitioners alike.
Deirdre J. Cox,
Criminal Procedure - The Robert Alton Harris Decision: Federalism, Comity, and Judicial Civil Disobedience, 23 Golden Gate U. L. Rev.