Crime and conviction
Born in St. Joseph, Michigan, Caryl Chessman was a criminal with a long record who spent most of his adult life behind bars. He had been paroled a short time from prison in California when he was arrested near Los Angeles and charged with being the notorious "Red Light Bandit." The "Bandit" would follow people in their cars to secluded areas and flash a red light that tricked them into thinking he was a police officer. When they opened their windows or exited the vehicle, he would rob and, in the case of several young women, rape them. In July 1948, Chessman was convicted on 17 counts of robbery, kidnapping, and rape and condemned to death.
Part of the controversy surrounding the Chessman case stems from how the death penalty was applied. At the time, under California's version of the "Little Lindbergh Law," any crime that involved kidnapping with bodily harm could be considered a capital offense. Two of the counts against Chessman alleged that he dragged a 17-year-old girl named Mary Alice Meza a short distance from her car before raping her. Despite the short distance the woman was moved, the court considered it sufficient to qualify as kidnapping, thus making Chessman eligible for the death penalty.
Acting as his own attorney, Chessman vigorously asserted his innocence from the outset, arguing throughout the trial and the appeals process that he was alternately the victim of mistaken identity, or a much larger conspiracy seeking to frame him for a crime he did not commit. He claimed at other times to know who the real culprit was, but refused to name him. He further alleged that statements he made during his initial police interrogation implicating him in the Red Light Bandit crimes were coerced through torture.
Over the course of the 10 years he spent on death row, Chessman filed dozens of appeals and successfully avoided eight execution deadlines, often by a few hours. He appealed his conviction primarily on the grounds that the original trial was improperly conducted and that subsequent appeals were seriously hampered by incomplete and incorrect transcripts of the original trial proceedings. The appeals were successful and the US Supreme Court finally ordered the State of California to either conduct a full review of the transcripts or release Chessman. The review concluded that the transcripts were substantially accurate and Chessman was scheduled to die in February 1960.
The Chessman affair put then-Governor of California Edmund G. "Pat" Brown, an opponent of the death penalty, in a difficult situation. Brown initially did not intervene in the case, but then issued a last-minute, 60-day stay of execution on February 19, 1960, just hours before Chessman's scheduled execution. Brown claimed he issued the stay out of concern that Chessman's execution could threaten the safety of President Dwight D. Eisenhower during a planned visit to South America, where the Chessman case had inflamed anti-American sentiment.
Chessman argued his case in the court of public opinion through letters, essays and books. While on death row, he wrote four books: Cell 2455, Death Row (1954), Trial by Ordeal (1955), The Face of Justice (1957) and The Kid Was A Killer (1960). In Cell 2455, Death Row, he clearly implies he once killed a man, though he was never prosecuted or convicted for this. Chessman's memoirs became bestsellers and ignited a worldwide movement to spare his life, while focusing attention on the politics of the death penalty in the United States at a time when most Western countries had already abandoned it, or were in the process of doing so. Brown's offices were flooded with appeals for clemency from noted authors and intellectuals from around the world, including Aldous Huxley, Ray Bradbury, Norman Mailer, Dwight MacDonald, and Robert Frost, and from such other public figures as former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Christian evangelist Billy Graham.
The manuscript of Chessman's novel The Kid Was a Killer was seized by San Quentin warden Harley O. Teets in 1954 on the theory that it was “prison labor/” The manuscript was eventually returned to Chessman in late 1957 and published in 1960. In addition to giving him worldwide notoriety, the books earned Chessman hundreds of thousands of dollars in royalties.
In 1954 or 1955, California repealed the Little Lindbergh Law and converted the death sentences of those who had been convicted under its statutes to terms of life in prison. Some of these inmates earned parole years later. Chessman, however, never had his sentence repealed. His sentence was upheld, and Brown refused to grant clemency.
Brown's stay of execution, along with Chessman's last appeals, ran out in April 1960 and Brown subsequently declined to grant Chessman executive clemency. Exhausting a last-minute attempt to file a writ of habeas corpus with the California Supreme Court, Chessman finally went to the gas chamber at San Quentin Prison on May 2, 1960.
During the execution, the emergency telephone rang just as the chamber was filling with gas. The caller was Judge Goodman's secretary Celeste Hickey, with a one-hour stay of execution. She quickly told Assistant Warden Reed Nelson the purpose of her call; he responded, "It's too late. The execution has begun." There was no way to stop the fumes, and no way to open the door and rescue the condemned man without the deadly fumes killing others. According to an episode of American Justice on Chessman, the secretary initially misdialed the number; if she had not, she might have reached the execution chamber in time. The alleged new evidence uncovered by the Argosy magazine which prompted the stay attempt appears in very few accounts.
The celebrated author Dominique Lapierre visited Chessman several times during his incarceration. Lapierre was then a young reporter working for a French newspaper. His account of Chessman appears in the book A Thousand Suns.
While on death row, Chessman sold the rights to his autobiography, Cell 2455, Death Row to Columbia Pictures. The book was made into a film of the same name, directed by Fred F. Sears in 1955, with William Campbell as Chessman. Chessman's middle name, Whittier, was used as the surname of his alter ego protagonist in the film.
1.^ Chessman v. Teets, 354 U.S. 156 (June 10, 1957)
2.^ http://www.usc.edu/libraries/archives/la/scandals/chessman.html Caryl Chessman, The Red-Light Bandit
3.^ http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/thedailymirror/2007/11/caryl-chessman.html Chessman's manuscript seized
4.^ The True Story of Caryl Chessman by Clark Howard