Caryl Chessman (1921–1960)

2012-03-12 05:36:42

Caryl Chessman, born in St. Joseph, Michigan, in 1921, grew up in Glendale, California. During the Depression, Chessman began stealing food to provide for his family. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Chessman was in and out of jail for auto theft. In January 1948, the state of California charged Caryl Chessman with eighteen counts of robbery, sexual assault, and kidnapping. Two female victims identified Chessman as the ‘‘red light bandit,’’ a rapist who used a red light to impersonate police officers. Because Chessman had forcibly removed his victims from their vehicles, he was charged under California’s ‘‘Little Lindbergh Law’’ that carried the death penalty. Chessman’s capital conviction and unprecedented twelve-year stay on death row fundamentally shaped public opinion and legal precedents on the death penalty nationwide.

At trial Chessman rebuffed the services of a defense attorney and defended himself. Chessman’s defense, however, failed for several reasons: He was inexperienced with courtroom procedure, both the judge and prosecuting attorney had strong capital conviction records, and the jury was composed of eleven women and only one man. Death in the gas chamber seemed imminent until the court reporter died two days before Chessman’s official Sentencing. Sensing an opportunity, Chessman moved for a new trial stating that new trial transcripts would be inaccurate. Although the judge refused his motion, higher court judges repeatedly stayed Chessman’s execution citing potential transcription errors.

By early 1952, the California Supreme Court decreed that new trial transcripts were accurate. Chessman’s new execution date was set for March 1952; however, over the next eight years, Chessman convinced several California judges, federal judges, and even governor Pat Brown that the new transcripts were flawed. The transcription issue never evaporated, because Chessman took his case to the public in 1954 when he smuggled his autobiography, Cell 2455 Death Row, out of San Quentin. Once the book was published, politicians, prison officials, criminologists, and psychiatrists, committed to the ideals of prisoner rehabilitation, claimed that Chessman’s literary attainments proved that he had reformed and deserved to live. Chessman continued to demonstrate his rehabilitation by publishing two more books. As public discussion on Chessman’s case increased, Americans questioned the efficacy of the death penalty. Many citizens wrote to California Governors Knight and Brown pleading for clemency in Chessman’s case. For many, Chessman’s legal and public appeals provided proof that the death penalty had no place in modern society.

In the late 1950s, however, increasing crime rates prompted many Americans to conclude that prisoner rehabilitation did not work. American public opinion on Capital Punishment reversed direction. A 1960 opinion poll indicated a strong approval trend. In 1995, approval of the death penalty reached an unprecedented eighty percent.

In 1962, after exhausting all of his legal and public appeals, Chessman died in the gas chamber. Even though he had lost his personal battle, Chessman ultimately pressed Americans to agree or disagree with the death penalty. Legally speaking, he forced the higher courts to consider new standards of fairness in capital cases.


References and Further Reading

  • Hamm, Theodore. Rebel and a Cause: Caryl Chessman and the Politics of the Death Penalty in Postwar California, 1948–1974. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001
  • Kunstler, William. Beyond a Reasonable Doubt? The Original Trial of Caryl Chessman. New York: Morrow Press, 1961
  • Parker, Frank J. Caryl Chessman: The Red Light Bandit. Nelson Hall, 1975

See also Capital Punishment