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Caryl Chessman Trial: 1948

Caryl Chessman Trial: 1948

Defendant: Caryl Whittier Chessman
Crimes Charged: Kidnapping, sexual perversion, and robbery
Chief Defense Lawyers: Caryl Chessman and Al Matthews
Chief Prosecutor: J. Miller Leavy
Judge: Charles W. Fricke
Place: Los Angeles, California
Dates of Trial: April 4-May 21, 1948
Verdict: Guilty
Sentence: Death

SIGNIFICANCE: Caryl Chessman's uniquely documented struggle against capital punishment not only aroused global sympathy for a possibly innocent man, but highlighted the imponderable sluggishness of the U.S. death penalty process.

In January 1948, a 27-year-old career criminal named Caryl Chessman was arrested after a car chase and shootout as a suspect in the armed robbery of a men's clothing store in Los Angeles, California. When police searched the stolen Ford that Chessman was driving, they found a penlight and a. 45-caliber automatic pistol, items that made them suspect that Chessman might be the "Red Light Bandit," a man who had been driving up to couples in parked cars, flashing a red light to make them think it was a police car, then robbing the couples and forcing some of the women to perform sexual acts. Despite the fact that Chessman bore little physical resemblance to descriptions of the attacker, several victims identified him. The charge sheet included multiple counts of robbery, two counts of sexual perversion, andmost importantlythree counts of violating Section 209 of the California Penal Code, the so-called "Little Lindbergh Law." This covered kidnapping with intent to commit robbery: if bodily harm could also be proved, Section 209 was punishable by death.

Defends Himself

Even before the trial began April 4, 1948, Chessman, a cocky, street-smart hoodlum with an overinflated opinion of his own cleverness, created headlines by dismissing his lawyers and announcing that he intended to defend himself. It is impossible to overstate the enormity of this tactical blunder. Not only was Chessman on trial for his life, but he was facing Judge Charles W. Fricke, who in the course of his career sentenced more people to death than any other judge in California history. Right from the outset, Fricke made it plain that he regarded Chessman as an arrogant interloper, and he did everything possible to stymie the defense. When Chessman asked Fricke that he be given a daily transcript of proceedings, Fricke denied the request, something he had never done before in a capital case. Chessman's further complaint that he had not been shown the correct way to make a motion drew an outburst from Fricke: "Mr. Chessman, the court is not engaged in conducting a law school or advising a defendant what court procedure is." (As a matter of fact, so advising the defendant was exactly Fricke's duty in the case of a man conducting his own defense.)

Neither did Chessman make much headway with the prosecutor, J. Miller Leavy. A 16-year veteran of capital cases, Leavy outmaneuvered his opponent at every turn. Never was this more apparent than during the jury selection process, when Chessman sat silently by and let Leavy impanel an 11-woman, one-man jury, something no experienced defense lawyer would have allowed in a sex case.

The first witness, Regina Johnson, described being taken from her car at gunpoint by a masked assailant to another vehicle where she was forced to commit a sexual act. (It was that distance between the two cars22 feetthat made this a capital case. Technically, under California law at the time, she had been kidnapped. Those 22 feet meant the difference between a maximum sentence of 15 years for sexual perversion and death in the gas chamber.) "He told me that we would be taken away in a casket, the both of us, unless I did what he wanted." Briefly the attacker's mask had slipped, affording Johnson a glimpse of his face. She positively identified Chessman as the man.

On cross-examination Chessman emphasized discrepancies between Johnson's description of her attacker and himself. The bandit had been of undistinguished build and 58 or 59. Chessman was close to 6 and almost 200 pounds. Johnson persisted in her identification. Then she went on the offensive. When Chessman asked, "Did this person state what his intentions in taking you back to the other car was [sic]?" Johnson responded: "No, you didn't tell me until after I had gotten in your car."

"How long were you in the Ford?"

"In the car with you?" Johnson needled, sensing Chessman's increasing agitation. It worked. Chessman erupted, demanding of Judge Fricke that Johnson answer the questions as asked. Fricke denied the request, leaving Chessman to stew.

Another victim of the "Red Light Bandit," Mary Alice Meza, was less feisty but equally damaging. Asked by prosecutor Leavy if Chessman was her attacker, Meza replied, "There is no question. It is definitely him. I know what he looks like."

Chessman the witness was no more impressive than Chessman the lawyer. Leavy repeatedly trapped him in confusing and contradictory answers. Once, when taxed on responses made to police, Chessman replied, "Specifically, I don't remember what my answers were, because they were just fabrications."

Controversial Transcript

On May 21, 1948, Chessman was found guilty on all charges, with punishment fixed at death, and held, pending formal sentencing. Then something unusual occurred. The court reporter, Ernest Perry, an elderly man who had been ill during the trial, died from a coronary thrombosis, leaving behind his 1,800 pages of shorthand testimony. Chessman pounced. Under California law, if the court reporter died before transcribing his notes in a civil case, a new trial must be held. On June 25, 1948, Judge Fricke, pointing out that this was a criminal case, not civil, refused Chessman's request for a new trial. Then he sentenced him to death twice.

In September 1948 responsibility for transcribing the shorthand notes was given to Stanley Fraser, who just happened to be the uncle of prosecutor Leavy. (He also received $10,000 for the task, three times the going rate.) Worse than that, Fraser had several times been arrested for drunkennessonce while actually taking dictation in court. Chessman argued that the transcription which Fraser provided was hopelessly biased and inaccurate.

Over the next decade this mutilated transcript formed the bedrock of Chessman's historic struggle against his sentence. He won eight stays of execution, some within hours of the appointed time. He also wrote three books. The first, Cell 2455, Death Rowz, became a best seller and made him an international cause c61kbre.

But on May 2, 1960, Chessman's ordeal ended in the San Quentin gas chamber. The circumstances of his execution were remarkably similar to those of Burton Abbott (see separate entry), three years earlier. Just seconds after guards sealed the door, a ninth stay of execution was telephoned through. Like Abbott's, it came too late. Caryl Chessman's fight was over.

No matter which side one takes regarding Chessman's guilt or innocence, few now doubt that his trial was seriously flawed. Had he been properly represented, there is every likelihood that his sentence would have been commuted. But because, in the eyes of those who mattered, he had brought the law into disrepute, he paid the ultimate price. Arrogance undid him. An old legal maxim states that anyone who defends himself has a fool for a client. Never was this more vividly demonstrated than in the trial of Caryl Chessman.

Colin Evans

Suggestions for Further Reading

Brown, Edmund G. and Dick Adler. Public Justice, Private lercy. New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989.

Chessman, Caryl. Cell 2455, Death Row. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1954.

Machlin, Milton and William Read Woodfield. Ninth Life. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1961.

Parker, Frank J. Caryl Chessman, The Red Light Bandit. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1975.

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