On January 7, 1965, 23-year-old Robert Lee Massie shot and killed Mildred Weiss during a botched robbery near her home. He pleaded guilty and, sentenced to die by the state of California, came within 16 hours of execution in 1967, when then-Governor Ronald Reagan temporarily halted his execution so that he could testify at the trial of his alleged co-conspirator. By this time, Massie had begun complaining to anybody who would listen about the conditions on death row, and greeting the prospect of an execution date as a welcome deliverance, was dubbed “the prisoner who wants to die” by the press.
However, Reagan’s reprieve bought him just enough time to live to see a California Supreme Court decision temporarily halting executions, which was followed by the US Supreme Court Furman v. Georgia decision of 1972 banning the death penalty as then being enforced as unconstitutionally arbitrary and capricious.
With Furman, death rows across the country were summarily cleared, and Massie, a model prisoner, was paroled for good behavior in 1978. By this time, the US Supreme Court had handed down the Gregg v. Georgia decision holding that states had revised their death penalty statutes sufficiently to allow executions to resume.
Only months after his release, Massie killed Boris Naumoff in his liquor store and wounded a clerk in another botched robbery. Again pleading guilty, this time over the objections of his court-appointed lawyer, Massie was again sentenced to die.
As before, Massie welcomed his sentence and, acting on a own novel interpretation of the Sixth Amendment guarantee of self-representation, argued that he had a constitutional right to bypass the appeals process usually automatic in capital cases and that there “is no meaningful difference between forcing an automatic appeal upon a defendant and forcing unwanted counsel upon him.” The appeals court disagreed, ruling that “while a litigant may waive the advantage of a law intended solely for his benefit, he may not waive a law established for a public reason.”
Appeals in capital cases were never intended to allow the prisoner to “choose his own sentence,” the Court wrote, and were in fact in place for just such a reason of ensuring full investigation into the “real issue [of] the propriety of allowing the state to conduct an illegal execution of a citizen.” The state was obliged to proceed with Massie’s appeals against his stated wishes, a charge unique to capital cases, because of the singular obligations imposed by the death sentence on the legal machinery of the state — and in fact imposed by the Furman and Gregg decisions that years earlier had ushered Massie unwillingly off death row.
His appeals continuing against his wishes, Massie’s conviction was ultimately overturned in a 1985 California Supreme Court decision holding that the sentence was invalid because his lawyer had not consented to the guilty plea.
Convicted again in a retrial in 1989, Massie was, once again, sentenced to death. Though he was briefly heartened enough to pursue appeals in earnest, those, too, foundered; increasingly convinced that corrupt judges were violating their oath to uphold the Constitution and greasing the machinery of death, he determined once again to pursue his own death.
As his appeals ran out, lawyers and advocates of all stripes stepped in to try to prevent Massie’s execution. A lifetime of abuse in foster care and juvenile detention centers and evidence of clinical depression and mental disorder were all presented at the last minute in a last-ditch attempt to save a man who didn’t want saving.
All were denied, and Robert Lee Massie was executed at the age of 59 on March 27, 2001. He was just the ninth prisoner executed in California in the post-Furman era and the 703rd nationwide.
Massie is one of a growing trend of death row volunteers, prisoners who voluntarily seek to run through their appeals and bring their lives on death row to an end. His frequent visitor in his last years in prison and “next friend,” Michael Kroll,* writes:
My friend, Bob Massie, maneuvered the state of California into assisting in his suicide. He had his own lawyer doing the dance of death with the attorney general and managed to avoid being declared incompetent.
And in the words of a relative of one of Massie’s victims:
I know he wants to die. It makes me think, if he wants out of the suffering, well, maybe we shouldn’t be killing him. Maybe he should just be left there to suffer.
Tossed hither and yon with the shifting legal tides of death penalty law spanning eight presidential administrations, Massie had to aid his executioners to the very last breath: when finally strapped to a gurney 36 years since that young man had murdered Mildred Weiss, he obligingly flexed his arm to help the technician find a suitable vein.
* Kroll tried to prevent Massie’s execution on the grounds that he was mentally ill, incurring his friend’s wrath.