Robert Alton Harris is executed in California’s gas chamber after 13 years on death row. This was California’s first execution since former Chief Justice Rose Bird and two other state supreme court justices, Joseph Grodin and Cruz Reynoso, had been rejected by California voters. From 1979 to 1986, the Bird court had reversed 64 out of the 68 death penalty cases on appeal. Supporters of capital punishment initiated a campaign against Bird, Grodin, and Reynoso, successfully ousting them from the court in 1986. Republican Governor George Deukmejian then appointed three justices in favor of the death penalty to take their places.
On July 5, 1978, Harris abducted John Mayeski and Michael Baker, both 16, from a fast-food restaurant in Mira Mesa, California. After he shot both Mayeski and Baker, he then ate their hamburgers. In an amazing coincidence, the father of one of the boys pulled Harris over for a traffic violation later that same day.
Attorneys for Harris sought to avoid the death penalty by arguing that the killer suffered organic brain damage as a result of fetal alcohol syndrome. The case became a focal point for death penalty abolitionists, who held rallies across the state. Amnesty International even tried to lobby on Harris’ behalf, but their efforts proved unsuccessful and Harris was executed on April 21. Since then, California has had a steady stream of executions but remains far behind Texas and Florida in the number of inmates put to death.
Harris' execution is specifically remembered for his peculiar choice of final words (recorded by Warden Daniel Vasquez): "You can be a king or a street sweeper, but everybody dances with the grim reaper," a misquotation of a line from the 1991 film Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey.
Modern rock icon Kurt Cobain commits suicide on this day in 1994. His body was discovered inside his home in Seattle, Washington, three days later by Gary Smith, an electrician, who was installing a security system in the suburban house. Despite indications that Cobain, the lead singer of Nirvana, killed himself, several skeptics questioned the circumstances of his death and pinned responsibility on his wife, Courtney Love.
At least two books, including one penned by Love’s estranged father, and a nationally released documentary, Kurt & Courtney, openly expressed doubt that Cobain killed himself and all but accused Love of having her husband killed. Her volatile reputation and healthy list of enemies helped to circulate the rumors. However, police have concluded that Cobain’s death was the result of suicide.
Cobain’s downward spiral began taking shape in Italy the previous month. He went into a coma and nearly died after mixing champagne and the drug Rohypnol. The public was led to believe that the coma was induced by an accidental heroin overdose, since Cobain had a well-known problem with the drug.
Back at home in Seattle, the police were called to Cobain and Love’s home when he again threatened to kill himself. Although Cobain stated in a 1991 interview that he didn’t believe in guns, the officers confiscated four from his possession. As his wife and friends watched him spin out of control, they attempted to intervene. Cobain mostly ignored their concerns but reluctantly checked into a rehabilitation clinic in Los Angeles at the end of March.
On March 30, Cobain walked away from the clinic without informing his family or friends. For the next few days, Love could not locate him and decided to hire a private detective on April 3. The detective made contact with Cobain the following day in Seattle, but Cobain refused to return to Los Angeles.
In the meantime, Cobain had convinced a friend to buy him a gun, claiming he needed it for protection. On April 5, Cobain returned home. He had ingested enough Valium and heroin to reach near-fatal levels. In the apartment above the garage was Cobain’s sloppily written suicide note, quoting Neil Young’s lyric that it is “better to burn out than to fade away.”
Martin Luther King Jr. is shot to death at a hotel in Memphis, Tennessee. A single shot fired by James Earl Ray from over 200 feet away at a nearby motel struck King in the neck. He died an hour later at St. Joseph’s Hospital. The death of America’s leading civil rights advocate sparked a wave of rioting in the black communities of several cities around the country.
Ray, who had escaped from a Missouri prison almost a year earlier, had used the aliases Eric Galt and John Willard to register in several motels in the Memphis area. He fired a Remington rifle from a bathroom window that looked out onto the hotel balcony where King was standing.
Ray fled to Canada, where he stayed for a month. Meanwhile, the FBI placed him on the Ten Most Wanted Fugitives List. After buying a passport under the name Sneyd, Ray traveled to England on May 6. Within a week of arriving in London, he traveled to Lisbon, Portugal, for five days. Back in London, Ray moved from hotel to hotel until authorities finally caught up with him on June 8 at Heathrow Airport.
Ray was a career criminal who was in and out of prison for several small-time robberies. Since he had no known record of political hatred, many suspect that Ray was paid to assassinate King. One factor that has fueled this speculation is that Ray clearly had significant resources during the time between the assassination and his capture.
In any event, Ray pleaded guilty before his scheduled trial began in March 1969 and was sentenced to 99 years in prison. Ray recanted his confession a few months later and insisted on his innocence for years. However, his efforts to secure a new trial were futile, despite the support of members of the King family who were eager to determine if others were involved. Ray died on April 23, 1998.
April 04, 1968 : Martin Luther King Jr. is assassinated
April 04, 1968 : Martin Luther King Jr. is assassinated