Caryl Chessman

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Caryl Chessman
Born Caryl Whittier Chessman
(1921-05-27)May 27, 1921
St. Joseph, Michigan, U.S.
Died May 2, 1960(1960-05-02) (aged 38)
San Quentin, California, U.S.
Cause of death Execution (Gas chamber)
Nationality American
Criminal charge Robbery, kidnapping, and rape (17 counts)
Criminal penalty Death
Criminal status Executed
Date apprehended
January 23, 1948
Imprisoned at San Quentin State Prison

Caryl Whittier Chessman (May 27, 1921 – May 2, 1960) was a convicted robber, kidnapper and rapist who was sentenced to death for a series of crimes committed in January 1948 in the Greater Los Angeles Area. The last non-military prisoner to be executed in the United States for a crime other than murder,[1] Chessman was convicted under a loosely-interpreted "Little Lindbergh law"—later repealed, but not retroactively—that defined kidnapping as a capital offense under certain circumstances. His case attracted worldwide attention, and helped propel the movement to abolish capital punishment in California.

While in prison, Chessman authored four books including his memoirs Cell 2455, Death Row. The book was adapted for the screen in 1955 and stars William Campbell as Chessman.

Early years[edit]

He was born Carol Whittier Chessman in St. Joseph, Michigan, the only child of Hallie Lillian (née Cottle) and Serl Whittier Chessman, both devout Baptists. (Carol was, at the time, a popular name for boys of Danish descent; Chessman later modified the spelling himself.[2]) In 1922, the family relocated to Glendale, California. Chessman's father became despondent after failing at each of a series of jobs, and attempted suicide twice. In 1929 Chessman's mother was paralyzed after a car accident.[3] As a child, Chessman battled asthma, which left him weak, and contracted encephalitis, which he later claimed changed his personality. After recovering he began to rebel against his parents' strict Baptist upbringing by committing petty crimes.[4] The family was hit hard by the Depression and Chessman later recalled that he stole food and other items as an adolescent to help his parents. During his teen years—as the stealing continued—he changed the spelling of his first name from "Carol" to "Caryl".[3]

In July 1937 Chessman was caught stealing a car and sent to Preston Industrial School. He was released in April 1938, only to return a month later after stealing another car. In October 1939 Chessman was sent to the Los Angeles County Road Camp after yet another car theft. It was there that he met a group of young criminals known as the "Boy Bandit Gang". After his release from the road camp he joined the gang and, in April 1941, was arrested in connection with a number of gang-related robberies and shootouts with police. As the gang's leader, Chessman was convicted of robbery and sent to San Quentin State Prison, then transferred to the California Institution for Men in Chino. He escaped in October 1943 but was arrested a month later. Convicted on another robbery charge, Chessman was sentenced to five years to life and served the minimum, mostly at Folsom State Prison. He was released in December 1947 and returned to Glendale.[3]

Crimes and conviction[edit]

In the first three weeks of January 1948, a rash of robberies and thefts were reported throughout the Greater Los Angeles Area. On January 3, two men robbed a haberdashery in Pasadena with a .45 caliber automatic pistol. On January 13, a 1946 Ford Coupe was stolen from a Pasadena street. On January 18, a man driving what was described as a 1947 Ford coupe pulled a couple over who were driving near Malibu Beach. The driver thought the car was a police officer as the man used a red light to pull the car over. After approaching the vehicle, the man pulled out a .45 and robbed the couple. Later that day, a second couple was robbed in the same manner near the Rose Bowl.[5] Police quickly began to suspect that the same man was responsible for the crimes.[3] The media began reporting on the stories and dubbed the suspect "The Red Light Bandit".[6] On January 19, a third couple was robbed as they sat parked on a hill in West Pasadena. This time, the suspect forced a woman, Regina Johnson, to perform oral sex on him.[5][3] On January 22, another couple was pulled over and robbed. The suspect had followed the couple while they were driving on Mulholland Drive on their way home from a church dance. This time, the suspect took the girl, 17-year-old Mary Alice Meza, back to his vehicle. When her boyfriend drove off to get help, the Bandit attempted to force him off the road. He then took Meza to a secluded area and where he threatened to kill her boyfriend unless she agreed to submit to his demands. He then forced her to engage in oral and anal sex.[7]

Based on the description and details Meza and her boyfriend gave police, an all-points bulletin was issued on January for a man driving a tan or grey 1946 Ford coupe. A few hours after the bulletin was issued, two police spotted a 1946 Ford coupe in North Hollywood that was also identified as the car of two suspects who had robbed a clothing store in Redondo Beach. After police pulled up behind the car, it sped off.[7] After a high speed, five mile car chase, Chessman and an accomplice, David Knowles, were arrested. After 72 hours, Chessman confessed to being the "Red Light Bandit" (he would later claim that his confession came after police beat and tortured him). He was also positively identified by Regina Johnson and Mary Alice Mezan.[8] In late January 1948, Chessman was charged with eighteen counts of robbery, kidnapping, and rape. After a three week trial, Chessman was convicted on seventeen of the eighteen counts on May 21, 1948.[9] He was condemned to death.[10] David Knowles, the man who was arrested with Chessman, was also charged and convicted. In 1950, his conviction was thrown out due to "impermissible abuse of the law".[9]

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 Mary Alice Meza a considerable distance from her car demanding oral sex from her and separately took another victim, Regina Johnson, twenty-two feet from her car to his.[11] Despite the short distance Johnson was moved, the court considered it sufficient[12] to qualify as kidnapping, thus making Chessman eligible for the death penalty.

On death row[edit]

Acting as his own attorney, Chessman 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 beatings and torture.

While on death row, Chessman argued his case to the public through letters, essays and books. 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.[13]

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.[14]

Over the course of the twelve 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.[15] 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.[16]


Brown's stay of execution, along with Chessman's last appeals, ran out in April 1960. Governor Brown was unable to grant Chessman executive clemency as The California Constitution requires the commutation of a two-time felon's death sentence to be ratified by the California Supreme Court[17] (In Chessman's case, the court had voted no, 4-3).[18] 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." As the process had already started, it was impossible 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.[19] The day after his execution, as per his wishes, Chessman's body was cremated at the Mount Tamalpais Mortuary and Cemetery in San Rafael, California.[20] He requested that his ashes be interred with his parents' at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale. Forest Lawn refused to comply with Chessman's request on "moral grounds".[21] His ashes were eventually buried at the Mount Tamalpais Cemetery. In February 1974, Chessman's attorney Rosalie Asher had his ashes disinterred and scattered them off the coast of Santa Cruz Island.[22]

Chessman's time on death row — eleven years and ten 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.[23] 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.[24][25]

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.[26]

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).[27]

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.[28]

The Argentine rock band Patricio Rey y sus Redonditos de Ricota recorded a song about Chessman called "Un tal Brigitte Bardot".


  1. ^ Caryl Chessman became international crime celebrity in the 1950s when he was condemned to die for two sexual assaults. New York Daily News archive. Retrieved April 13, 2015.
  2. ^ Howard, C. The True Story of Caryl Chessman. The Crime Library. Retrieved February 25, 2015.
  3. ^ a b c d e Hamm, Theodore (2001). Rebel and a Cause: Caryl Chessman and the Politics of the Death Penalty in Postwar California, 1948-1979. University of California Press. p. 3. ISBN 0-520-92523-8. 
  4. ^ Starr, Kevin (2003). Embattled Dreams: California in War and Peace, 1940-1950. Oxford University Press. p. 223. ISBN 0-195-16897-6. 
  5. ^ a b James, Bill (2012). Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence. Scribner. p. 186. ISBN 1-416-55274-X. 
  6. ^ Ulin, David L. (September 19, 2006). "Caryl Chessman's infamous death row case is revisited". Retrieved December 22, 2014. 
  7. ^ a b James 2012 p.187
  8. ^ Hamm 2001 p.4
  9. ^ a b James 2012 p.188
  10. ^ "A Strange Meeting In Prison". Life (Time Inc.) 48 (7): 30. February 22, 1960. ISSN 0024-3019. 
  11. ^ People v. Chessman 38 Cal. 2d 166 (1951)
  12. ^ People v. Chessman, 52 Cal. 2d 467 (1959)
  13. ^ Chessman's manuscript seized
  14. ^ Caryl Chessman, The Red-Light Bandit
  15. ^ Chessman v. Teets, 354 U.S. 156 (June 10, 1957)
  16. ^ Obituary: R. Richard Rubottom, New York Times, December 20, 2010; accessed June 2, 2014.
  17. ^ "California Constitution: Article 5". 
  18. ^ "Caryl Chessman: Biography". 
  19. ^ "Chessman’s Execution a 'Breath of Fresh Air,’ Times Says (Clippings of 1960s coverage)". LATimes. Retrieved December 14, 2014. 
  20. ^ Stevens, Shane (2007). By Reason of Insanity. Chicago Review Press. p. 39. ISBN 1-556-52662-8. 
  21. ^ Mitford, Jessica (2011). The American Way of Death Revisited. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. p. 102. ISBN 0-307-80939-0. 
  22. ^ "Ashes of Chessman Scattered At Sea". The Milwaukee Journal. March 11, 1974. p. 6. Retrieved December 22, 2014. 
  23. ^ Nordheimer, J. (March 13, 1988). Florida Inmate Faces His Seventh Date With Executioner. The New York Times Retrieved November 30, 2014.
  24. ^ People v. Monk, 56 Cal. 2d. 288 (Cal. 2d July 20, 1961).
  25. ^ "Tragedy in Curtain Call for Sad Mother". Mirror News. April 27, 1960. Retrieved November 8, 2013. 
  26. ^ Dominique Lapierre: Bestselling Writer Turns Philanthropist. archive. Retrieved November 30, 2014.
  27. ^ Morales, T. (January 4, 2005). Alan Alda Shows Off His Dark Side. CBS News archive. Retrieved November 30, 2014.
  28. ^ 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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