Prior to the special premiere of “Chessman”, playing October 13-October 22 at the B Street Theatre, I attended a forum on the Caryl (pronounced “Carol”) Chessman case and its impact on the death penalty debate. The forum was hosted by the California State Library in Sacramento.
The panelists were Joseph Rodota, the author of the new play “Chessman”; Ethan Rarick, author of “California Rising: The Life and Times of Pat Brown”; and state archivist Michael Dolgushkin, who cataloged the State Library’s collection of Chessman’s papers. State Librarian Greg Lucas was the forum moderator.
Rodota is a graduate in history from Stanford University (with honors), and has served as a writer and communications manager in the Reagan White House as well as top campaign and government aide to California Governors Pete Wilson and Arnold Schwarzenegger. He described himself at the forum as an “accidental playwright”.
Rarick is the director of the Robert T. Matsui Center for Politics and Public Service at the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley and a former political journalist. Rarick studies California politics, policy and history, and has written about these subjects for many publications, including The Los Angeles Times and California History.
Dolgushkin is the caretaker of the extensive Chessman collection in the California History Section of the State Library. It includes a wealth of information including photo’s, correspondence, court transcripts, books written by Chessman printed in multiple languages, as well as news and magazine articles from all over the world.
I was vaguely familiar with the Chessman case to the extent that I knew it had mobilized the anti-death penalty movement. The forum discussion was just what I needed to learn about Chessman and the events of the time.
The forum panelists described Chessman as bright (he had an IQ of 127), self-educated, self-destructive, and a difficult person. He apparently fell in with a bad crowd early in life. He was further described as an aggressive punk who had engaged in a life of crime that had him in and out of prison in the years prior to his final conviction.
Chessman was convicted in 1948 at age 27 under California’s “Little Lindbergh” law. Under this law a crime that involved kidnapping with bodily harm could be considered a capital offense.
While this law was repealed by the time Chessman went to trial the repeal was not made retroactive. This fact was part of the controversy surrounding the Chessman case.
Chessman, aka the Red Light Bandit, committed a series of crimes in Los Angeles that fueled fear in the populace. The Red Light Bandit used a red light to stop cars and then rob the occupants. He also was known to prey upon couples parked at “lover’s lanes”. In two instances the Red Light Bandit removed the women, forced them into his car and raped them.
In 1948 Chessman was charged with 18 counts of robbery, kidnapping and rape. He was convicted on 17 of the 18 counts including kidnapping with bodily harm – and sentenced to death. Chessman acted as his own counsel to his disadvantage and against the advice of the court.
As Chessman was acting as his own counsel he cross-examined his victims in court. At the forum Rodota described Chessman’s cross-examinations as “clumsy”. One young rape victim, Mary Alice Meza, was so traumatized that she was later committed to a mental institution.
Chessman maintained that he was innocent, and that a confession obtained when he was initially arrested was coerced. The means available at that time to determine guilt or innocence was much different from these modern times. For example, at the time there was no such thing as DNA evidence.
Following his conviction Chessman wrote his first book Cell 2455, Death Row which became an international best-seller. Cell 2455, Death Row, was translated into multiple languages and made into a Columbia Pictures film. All told Chessman wrote four books. The income from his first and subsequent books allowed him to continue fighting his conviction until his death.
From San Quentin’s Death Row he fought through the courts for nearly 12 years. While in this day and age it is not unusual for Death Row inmates to die of old age decades after their conviction – at that time in history this was not the case.
Chessman became an international celebrity and women from around the world wrote to him offering marriage.
Some of those in the anti-death penalty camp who championed clemency for Chessman were convinced that he was innocent. Others pointed to his books as proof that he had been “reformed”.
Chessman received a series of stays of execution during which time he waged a public relations campaign to ignite public opinion to spare his life and bring attention to the issue of the death penalty in the United States.
The panelists observed that in the wake of World War II the opinion of the populace in the United States on capital punishment was fairly close to 50/50 – similar to today.
Governor Pat Brown’s office was besieged with appeals for clemency – from both ordinary people and public figures around the world.
While Governor Pat Brown, a Catholic, was personally an opponent of the death penalty he was unable to commute Chessman’s sentence. As required by the California Constitution, the question had been put to the California Supreme Court – and the Court had declined by a vote of 4-3.
Shortly before the February 19, 1960 scheduled execution of Chessman Governor Pat Brown issued another 60-day stay.
Governor Pat Brown went to the California State Legislature with a legislative proposal that would repeal the death penalty in California. The bill failed passage in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The stay of execution ran out in April 1960 and Chessman went to the gas chamber at San Quentin Prison on May 2.
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