Published September 20, 2012
HUNTSVILLE, Texas – The U.S. Supreme Court refused to stop the execution Thursday of an ex-con who confessed to killing five people at a Dallas-area car wash a week after he was fired from his job there.
The high court's appeal rejection came a little more than an hour before Robert Wayne Harris was to be taken to the Texas death chamber for lethal injection.
Harris, 40, was convicted of two of the five slayings 12 years ago at the Mi-T-Fine Car Wash in Irving. He also was charged with abducting and killing a woman months before the March 2000 spree and led police to her remains.
Harris would be/would have been the eighth Texas prisoner executed this year. Another is set to die next week in the nation's most-active capital punishment state.
Harris didn't deny the slayings, but his lawyer contended in appeals he was mentally impaired and should be spared because of a Supreme Court ban on execution of mentally impaired people. Attorney Lydia Brandt also questioned the makeup of Harris' jury at his 2000 trial in Dallas, contending prosecutors improperly removed black prospective jurors from serving on the panel. Harris is black.
State attorneys opposed the appeals, saying IQ tests disputed the mental impairment claims and that no racial component was involved in jury selection.
Harris had served an eight-year sentence for burglary and other offenses and had been working at the car wash for about 10 months when he was fired and arrested after exposing himself to a female customer. The following Monday he showed up before the business was to open, demanded the safe be opened and then shot the manager, the assistant who had fired Harris and a cashier.
Three more employees reporting to work also were shot, two of them fatally. When another worker arrived, Harris explained he just had stumbled upon the bloody scene. But when Harris pulled a knife, the worker said he was feeling uneasy and left. The worker called 911, and Harris was arrested the next day.
Evidence showed Harris had used money taken from the safe to buy new clothes, checked into a motel and asked a friend to buy him some gold jewelry.
"He knew from experience that they would not have deposited the weekend proceeds, and he was going to get the maximum amount of money that he possibly could obtain during this robbery," Greg Davis, the former Dallas County assistant district attorney who was the lead trial prosecutor, said this week. "I remember just the vicious nature of the offense and the fact it was very well thought-out and conceived by Robert Harris. Guilt is just crystal clear."
One of Harris' trial lawyers acknowledged that.
"No question at all," Brad Lollar said. "Our whole aim was to get him a life sentence. ... I keep hoping. I'm hoping something will come through for Robert."
Prosecutors tried him specifically for two of the slayings: Agustin Villasenor, 36, of Arlington, the assistant manager whose throat also was slit, and cashier Rhoda Wheeler, 46, of Irving. Harris was charged but not tried for killing Villasenor's brother, Benjamin, 32, a seven-year employee; car wash manager Dennis Lee, 48, of Irving; and Roberto Jimenez Jr., 15, an employee from Mexico.
The day after Harris confessed to the car wash bloodbath, he led police to a weeded area and the remains of an Irving woman, Sandra Scott, 37, who had been missing for four months. He was charged but never tried for capital murder in her death.
Testimony at his trial showed he also planned to go to Florida and kill an ex-girlfriend.
Court records showed Harris was 18 when he went to prison for burglary and other charges and after violating probation. He spent most of his time there in administrative segregation, a confinement level for troublesome inmates. Testimony at his trial showed he set fire to his cell, assaulted and threatened to kill prison staff and inmates, dealt drugs and engaged in sexual misconduct.
Harris declined to speak from prison with reporters as Thursday's execution date neared. A few weeks ago, he went to a prison visiting area for a TV interview, but changed his mind and crawled under a shelf in a tiny interview cage. Officers had to remove him.