Television Review

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The warden stepped up on to the platform to a blizzard of camera flashes. Robert Harris, the "swaggering, smiling killer" who had kidnapped and murdered two 16-year-old boys in 1978, was finally approaching execution. On the scrap of paper in the warden's hands was Harris's last statement. The awed congregation of media and lobbyists held its collective breath, while the warden struggled to maintain professional impassiveness. His moustache danced, his institution-issue robot monotone quavered, but he read it out: "You can be a king or a street sweeper, but everybody dances with the Grim Reaper."

A snarl of terrible insouciance, or genuine resignation wrapped up in the borrowed words of a pop song? We were left alone to decide. "Procedure 769", last night's True Stories (C4), was no psycho-porn "mind of a killer" film, but a sober portrait of the effect that Harris's 1992 execution, California's first for 25 years, had on the 50 witnesses to the killing. Director Jaap Van Hoewijk wove a talking-heads tapestry that acquired more ghostly force than any lurid reconstruction. Yet it was still a dramatic artefact, from the deep piano notes and brushed drums on the thoughtful soundtrack, to the voice-over detailing a gassing's grocery list ("Sodium cyanide, sulphuric acid, commercial ammonia, caustic soda, distilled water") and Harris's last supper: bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken, two pizzas, six-pack of sodas (Pepsis), jelly beans, two packs of cigarettes (Camels).

The witnesses, who gained entry to the gas-chamber compound by printed "invitation" (a grim instance of the state's Nabokovian vocabulary, processing death as a bourgeois social occasion), divided pretty neatly into two camps. One consisted of policemen and the victims' relatives. Sharron Mankins, mother of one of the murdered boys, said brightly: "The passion for the most part in that room was passion to kill. Hate." Linda Herring Baker, sister of the other victim, mused: "It wasn't really for... revenge. It was justice. I'm happy." But she wasn't. Linda and Sharron's grief, twisting their smiles of feigned pleasure, was a statuesque defence against any philosophical or moral quibbles you may have muttered at the screen. Forgiveness cannot be taught; only learned.

It was easier for the other camp, composed of Harris's own friends and relatives, to demonstrate compassion, without trying to excuse the murderer's crimes. Harris's brother, Randall, introduced himself with rueful charm: "I'm a licensed psychiatric security specialist. Yeah, I know - I work for the system." Robert Harris's guest list also included his brother, the Reverend Leon, whose role was "spiritual advisor", and prison visitor Lawrence Kroll, bouffant, moustached and acidly articulate: "I saw him regularly for eight years before - before we killed him."

Once seated around the gas chamber - a clanking, hissing lime-green contraption, resembling a futuristic submarine from a 1950s B-movie - the witnesses diverged shockingly. After one last-minute stay of execution, they were bundled in again at 4am and the gas was released. Harris's camp reported with graphic horror how the subject shuddered, moaned and frothed for several minutes. For the victims' camp, however, it was different: "After five to 10 seconds, it seemed to me, he did not feel anything," said a cop. Sharron Mankins even seemed disappointed: "He did not thrust, he did not make any obscene gestures... He did not yell."

Acknowledgement of Harris's suffering would have sullied the ideal of a surgical strike, a clean reckoning: perhaps Sharron and the others really did not see what went on. Vision, after all, is not passive; the picture they saw was framed by a template of desire which they had prepared for years. "A human being was being killed, right in front of their faces," said Randall, amazed at their calm. "Call it innocence or whatever, we lost it, when we witnessed that - we lost it." He was half right: they were robbed.