Caryl Chessman

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Caryl Whittier Chessman (May 27, 1921 – May 2, 1960) was a convicted robber and rapist who gained fame as a death row inmate in California. His case attracted worldwide attention, and helped propel the movement to ban capital punishment.

Crime and conviction[edit]

Born in St. Joseph, Michigan to Hallie Lillian (née Cottle) and Whittier Serl Chessman, 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 was 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 considerable distance from her car demanding oral sex from her and separately took Regina Johnson 22 feet from her car to his.[1] Despite the short distance Johnson was moved, the court considered it sufficient[2] to qualify as kidnapping, thus making Chessman eligible for the death penalty. In 1948, the death penalty was applicable to Chessman under Section 209 of the California Penal Code. Because he had been convicted of moving Regina Johnson and also Mary Alice Meza more than 20 feet, he was eligible for the death penalty under the fact that it was a kidnapping and robbery (he supposedly robbed Regina's husband) with bodily harm. So thus, if any person "kidnapped" someone and moved them 20 feet (the distance of one bedroom to another in any given house) and the victim had suffered "bodily harm", meaning even if the victim walked with a limp afterwards, and robbed that person, the perpetrator/defendant could be sentenced to death under the "Little Lindbergh Law", Section 209. Since Chessman had supposedly kidnapped, robbed, and raped both Johnson and Meza, this was why he got a death sentence. Back then in 1948, other than first degree murder a defendant could be executed for four other reasons: (1) trainwrecking resulting in death; (2) treason against the state; (3) kidnapping combined with robbery and bodily harm (section 209); and (4) perjury resulting in the execution of an innocent person. If Chessman was charged at the present time, he would not have been facing a death sentence, because Section 209 was amended and totally written off the books in 1951.[citation needed]

On death row[edit]

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.[citation needed]

Chessman argued his case to the public through letters, essays and books. His 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. The office of California Governor Pat Brown was 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.[3]

Over the course of the 12 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 U.S. Supreme Court finally ordered the State of California to either conduct a full review of the transcripts or release Chessman.[4] The review concluded that the transcripts were substantially accurate and Chessman was scheduled to die in February 1960.

The Chessman affair put Governor 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 said 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.[5]


Brown's stay of execution, along with Chessman's last appeals, ran out in April 1960 and Brown was unable to grant Chessman executive clemency (The California Constitution requires the commutation of a two-time felon's death sentence to be ratified by the State Supreme Court;[6] it voted no, 4-3 [7]). 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.

Shortly after the execution had started and Chessman was already reacting to the hydrogen cyanide gas, the telephone rang. The caller was a judge's secretary informing the warden of a new stay of execution. The warden responded, "It's too late; the execution has begun." There was no way to stop the fumes or open the chamber door and remove Chessman without the fumes killing others. Due to her nervousness, the secretary had initially dialed the wrong telephone number and lost valuable seconds in getting the call through.[8]

Chessman's time on death row—11 years, 10 months—was then the longest ever in the United States, a record that would be broken in the post-Furman v. Georgia era on March 15, 1988, when Willie Darden, Jr. was executed in Florida's electric chair.[9] Several months later, on November 21, 1961, Billy Monk was executed for kidnapping two women, attempting to rape the first and raping the second, and was the last to be executed for a non-lethal kidnapping in the United States.[10][11]


While on death row, Chessman wrote four books: Cell 2455, Death Row (1954), Trial by Ordeal (1955), The Face of Justice (1957) and The Kid Was A Killer (1960).

He sold the rights to his autobiography, Cell 2455, Death Row to Columbia Pictures, which was made into a 1955 film of the same name, directed by Fred F. Sears, with William Campbell as Chessman. Chessman's middle name, Whittier, was used as the surname of his alter ego protagonist in the film.

The manuscript of Chessman's novel The Kid Was a Killer was seized by San Quentin warden Harley O. Teets in 1954 on the grounds that it was “prison labor”. It was eventually returned to Chessman in late 1957 and published in 1960.[12]

In popular culture[edit]

The 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.[13]

Phil Ochs' liner notes to his 1965 folk/protest album I Ain't Marchin Anymore (EKL-287) include these words concerning the victim of the Iron Lady, a metaphoric reference to the electric chair, and the title of an anti-capital punishment selection from this key '60's vinyl protest: "A century from now, intelligent men will read in amazement about the murder of Caryl Chessman and wonder what excuse for a society flourished in these times."

In 1977, Alan Alda starred in an NBC television movie about Chessman's life, Kill Me If You Can (sometimes shown subsequently as The Caryl Chessman Story).[14]

The song, "The Ballad of Caryl Chessman", which includes the chorus "let him live, let him live, let him live", was a minor hit single for Ronnie Hawkins two months before Chessman's execution.[15]

The song Broadway Melody Of 1974 from The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway by Genesis contains the lyric "Caryl Chessman sniffs the air".


  1. ^ People v. Chessman 38 Cal. 2d 166 (1951)
  2. ^ People v. Chessman, 52 Cal. 2d 467 (1959)
  3. ^ Caryl Chessman, The Red-Light Bandit
  4. ^ Chessman v. Teets, 354 U.S. 156 (June 10, 1957)
  5. ^ Obituary: R. Richard Rubottom, New York Times, December 20, 2010; accessed June 2, 2014.
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^ "Chessman’s Execution a 'Breath of Fresh Air,’ Times Says (Clippings of 1960s coverage)". LATimes. Retrieved 14 December 2014. 
  9. ^ Nordheimer, J. (March 13, 1988). Florida Inmate Faces His Seventh Date With Executioner. The New York Times Retrieved November 30, 2014.
  10. ^ People v. Monk, 56 Cal. 2d. 288 (Cal. 2d July 20, 1961).
  11. ^ "Tragedy in Curtain Call for Sad Mother". Mirror News. April 27, 1960. Retrieved November 8, 2013. 
  12. ^ Chessman's manuscript seized
  13. ^ Dominique Lapierre: Bestselling Writer Turns Philanthropist. archive. Retrieved November 30, 2014.
  14. ^ Morales, T. (January 4, 2005). Alan Alda Shows Off His Dark Side. CBS News archive. Retrieved November 30, 2014.
  15. ^ It peaked at number 32 on the CHUM Chart in Toronto in March 1960, The CHUM Chart Book: 1957-1983, Ron Hall, p. 81

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