The Politics of Life and Death

As California prepares to use its gas chamber for the first time in 23 years, candidates call for more executions

They are getting the gas chamber at San Quentin ready again. It has been 23 years since an inmate was put to death in the prison that overlooks San Francisco Bay. Now eight volunteers from among the guards are rehearsing mock executions. Inspectors are checking the plumbing to ensure that the systems are working smoothly. If all goes as planned, the airtight steel door of the green chamber will open on April 3 to admit Robert Alton Harris, 37, then close behind him.

Harris is the kind of killer who can seem like a walking argument for capital punishment. On July...