Robert Lee Massie exercises his death wish

Debra J. Saunders

3/29/2001 12:00:00 AM - Debra J. Saunders
The death penalty did not penalize two-time killer Robert Lee Massie until he wanted it to. As a witness, I found his execution notable for its subdued sense of drama. The Dean of Death Row, clad in prison blue with white socks, entered the death chamber with a zipped-up face. He was strapped down, but frequently craned his neck to watch as tubes were stuck into his bound arms. If his face expressed anything, it was his desire to help the process. He was ready to leave Death Row by the only route available. In the gallery sat silent, somber family members of his victims. They clutched no family photos. They swallowed no sobs of grief. They simply watched, held hands and waited for Massie's execution to be over. His last words made as little sense as his rotten deeds in life: "Forgiveness. Giving up all hope for a better past." In the end, it was all about him. Massie, 59, showed no remorse for his crimes. He failed to apologize to the survivors of the two murders for which he had been sentenced to death. In 1965, Massie pleaded guilty to shooting Mildred Weiss, a 48-year-old mother of two, in the stomach during a robbery. He was sentenced to death for her murder, but paroled in 1978 after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned death penalty laws. Within eight months of his release, he killed Boris "Bob" Naumoff, 61, during a liquor store holdup. As Massie saw it, he was not dying to pay for those brutal slayings. Having first arrived on Death Row in 1965, and having returned in 1979, Massie could have lived a few more years. But last fall, he decided to yank his appeals and submit to execution. One could respect that choice, if he didn't laud himself as a martyr for a principled cause. "I have something to say," Massie wrote in a piece for The Chronicle, "and I want Californians to hear it: In your name, judges are violating their oaths to uphold the Constitution." Did he not know, or did he not care, that while he prepared to die for a cause, his two victims died for so much less? A purse, the contents of a cash register, but most of all for Massie's need to inflict pain. I had chosen to witness an execution to challenge myself: Because I believe in the death penalty, I felt a duty to attend and watch what I support. I anticipated no glee. I had never seen a dead body. Co-workers who had witnessed executions explained to me that inmates tend to walk into the death chamber somewhat zoned out. They don't go to their deaths as you or I might, were we to discover that we had to die tomorrow. They have years - in Massie's case, decades - to prepare for their last moment. They have lots of time to practice how to go out without falling apart. The journalist's perspective is limited. You can only watch the six-paned institutional- green execution room from one spot. You can only cast your eye on one narrow angle of a man's last moments. The strapping, the wrapping of his hands. Officers rotate his gurney. From then on, I see the top of his head, the shine of his eyelids, a body strapped in the shape of a snow angel, the occasional twitch of a foot or faint opening of the mouth. Then nothing. I never see remorse. I never see a man who repents the ugliness and pain that he thrust into the lives of innocents. When Massie cranes his neck to address witnesses, he addresses his buddies. It was as if Weiss and Naumoff never existed, and Massie is leaving as California's Nathan Hale. With one big difference: Because Massie has forfeited his last appeal, he can change his mind up until the moment of lethal injection. Before Massie dies, Warden Jeanne Woodford asks him if he wants to go through with it. For all his concern about civil rights, Massie never asked Mildred Weiss or Bob Naumoff that question. Menck Rickman, a grandson of Naumoff, trembles slightly as he addresses the press corps afterward. "He said he did this to protest" the legal system, Rickman notes. Fact is, without this legal system that strives so hard to protect the rights of the innocent and the guilty, Massie would have been executed some 30 years ago, with only one notch in his gun. That second notch was Rickman's grandfather.