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Chessman, Caryl


The execution of Caryl Chessman in the gas chamber of San Quentin Prison on May 3, 1960, ended a twelve-year struggle between Chessman and the justice system that culminated in international rage at the treatment of the prisoner.

Caryl Whittier Chessman was born May 27, 1921, in St. Joseph, Michigan. In 1948, Chess-man was a 27-year-old parolee from Folsom Prison in California when he was arrested in Los Angeles as the prime suspect in the "red light bandit" incidents. The modus operandi of the bandit was distinctive: he stalked desolate areas known to be popular with couples seeking a place to park and be alone. The bandit would walk toward a parked car carrying a red light similar to that used by police, and then assault the unsuspecting occupants of the car.

Chessman initially confessed to the crimes but later claimed that he was tortured into confessing. He professed his innocence but was indicted on eighteen separate counts, including kidnapping, robbery, sexual mistreatment, and attempted rape. Two of the charges carried a mandatory death sentence in California, based on the passage of the "Little Lindbergh" law in 1933 in response to the heinous kidnapping and murder of the infant son of aviator Charles Lindbergh and poet Anne Morrow Lindbergh. The law required capital punishment for a kidnapping in which the victim was inflicted with physical harm.

The trial lasted two weeks, and Chessman served as his own counsel, aided by an attorney provided by the court. The jury returned a verdict of guilty on seventeen of the charges, including those imparting the death sentence.

Chessman was transferred to San Quentin Prison in California pending an appeal to the state supreme court. The court affirmed the decision, and Chessman was sent to cell 2455 on death row to await his execution scheduled for March 28, 1952.

Chessman appealed his case on the grounds that he was not granted due process of law. He based his appeal on the fact that the transcript of his trial was inaccurate. The original court reporter had died suddenly, leaving twothirds of the testimony to be transcribed. Chess-man argued that the new reporter did not accurately decipher the old-style shorthand used by his predecessor. Chessman had also requested daily transcripts of the testimony, but this request was denied.

Chessman's plea was rejected, and during the next twelve years he submitted his appeal forty-two times before various federal and state appellate courts, including the supreme court of the united states. He remained on death row for twelve years, during which he wrote several books describing his life there. He was scheduled to face the gas chamber on nine separate occasions, but he always received a reprieve before the execution.

Chessman argued that his predicament was an example of cruel and unusual punishment, which violated his constitutional rights. The case began to attract international and political attention and at one point, Governor Edmund Brown of California called for a stay of execution by order of the state department to ensure a peaceful tour of South America by President dwight d. eisenhower.

Time was running out for Chessman by 1960. Although his lawyers claimed to have found new evidence in favor of their client, the courts denied a plea for a writ of habeas corpus. He was again scheduled for execution in May 1960. Protests were heard from several countries and famous people, including Aldous Huxley and Albert Schweitzer. Despite these efforts, Chessman was executed on May 3, 1960.

The death of Caryl Chessman incited a wave of anti-American sentiment with protests in several countries.

further readings

Hamm, Theodore. 2001. Rebel and a Cause: Caryl Chessman and the Politics of the Death Penalty in Postwar California, 1948-1974. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.


Lindbergh Kidnapping; Capital Punishment.

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