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. Chessman's case attracted worldwide attention, and as a result he became a cause célèbre for the movement to ban capital punishment.
Crime and conviction
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. Despite the short distance Johnson was moved, the court considered it sufficient 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. As far as historical accounts go, there is no evidence that anyone was ever executed for false testimony / perjury resulting in an innocent person's execution, although it is plausible that people might have perjured themselves on the stand which resulted in an innocent person's execution, since innocent persons have been executed in the United States at least two dozen times over the past century. 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.
On death row
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.
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.
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. 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 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.
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 (California law requires the commutation of a two-time felon's death sentence to be ratified by the State Supreme Court; it voted no, 4-3). 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.
As his execution began and the chamber was filling with 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," meaning there was no way to open the door and remove Chessman without the fumes killing others. The secretary had initially misdialed the telephone number and this may have made the difference between there being time to stop the execution and not. The alleged new evidence, which prompted the stay attempt, appears in very few accounts.
Chessman's time on death row, at 11 years, 10 months, was then the longest ever in the United States (and possibly the world)- a record that would be broken in the post-Furman v. Georgia era on March 15, 1988, when Willie Darden, Jr. died in Florida's electric chair. (Like Chessman, Darden also claimed innocence of the crime he was convicted for, but Darden's case for innocence is arguably stronger than Chessman's.)
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 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 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.
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.
In popular culture
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 a CBS television movie about Chessman's life, Kill Me If You Can (sometimes shown subsequently as The Caryl Chessman Story).
Mexican professional wrestler Kevin Zamora uses the identity of "Chessman" after Caryl Chessman, wearing red facepaint that he claims represents the blood of Chessman's victims. One of his nicknames in the wrestling world is "El Asesino de la Luz Roja", Spanish for "The Red Light Killer".
In Brazil, Chessman inspired João Acácio Pereira da Costa, who became known as "O Bandido da Luz Vermelha" (Portuguese for "The Red Light Bandit"), due to the fact he used a flashlight with a red lens cover to commit his crimes, similarly to Chessman.
He is referenced in the Genesis song "Broadway Melody 1974" from their 1974 album The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. The lyric is, "...The Cheerleader waves her cyanide wand, there's a smell of peach-blossom and bitter almond. Caryl Chessman sniffs the air and leads the parade. He knows, in a scent, you can bottle all you made." The olfactory reference is the smell associated with cyanide gas. There is also a play on the phrase, "in a scent", which could also be construed as "innocent".
He is also referenced in the Patricio Rey y sus Redonditos de Ricota unedited song "Un tal Bridgitte Barlot". He is mentioned in several lines of the song.
He is also referenced in the Nicolas Peyrac song "So far away from L.A.". The line goes "Monsieur Caryl Chessman est mort, mais le doute subsiste encore, avait-il raison ou bien tort?"
Chessman is named in Neil Diamond's 1970 song "Done Too Soon" from the album Tap Root Manuscript. Although not everyone mentioned in the song died early in their life, several did, and the song is known for its message on mortality.
He is referenced alongside Edgar Smith and Ted Bundy in Stephen King's novel The Stand when the lawyer, Devins, talks about the cruelty of Death Row.
- People v. Chessman 38 Cal. 2d 166 (1951)
- People v. Chessman, 52 Cal. 2d 467 (1959)
- http://www.usc.edu/libraries/archives/la/scandals/chessman.html Caryl Chessman, The Red-Light Bandit
- Chessman v. Teets, 354 U.S. 156 (June 10, 1957)
- Obituary: R. Richard Rubottom, New York Times, Dec. 20, 2010.
- The True Story of Caryl Chessman by Clark Howard
- http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/thedailymirror/2007/11/caryl-chessman.html Chessman's manuscript seized
- It peaked at number 32 on the CHUM Chart in Toronto in March 1960, The CHUM Chart Book: 1957-1983, Ron Hall, p. 81
- Caryl Chessman online
- Newsreel footage about Caryl Chessman
- An in depth article on Chessman
- FBI files on Chessman
- Chessman on Crime Library
- Cell 2455 Death Row at the Internet Movie Database
- Kill Me If You Can at the Internet Movie Database
- Caryl Chessman at Find a Grave