Caryl Whittier Chessman
(May 27, 1921 in St. Joseph, Michigan, – May 2, 1960 at San Quentin Prison) was
a convicted robber and rapist who gained fame as a death row inmate in
California. Chessman's case attracted world-wide attention, and as a result he
became a cause célèbre for the movement to ban capital punishment.
Crime and Conviction
Chessman was a criminal with a long record who had
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 seventeen counts of robbery, kidnapping
and rape and 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 woman a short distance from
her car before raping her. Despite the short distance the woman was moved, the
court considered it sufficient to qualify as kidnapping, thus making Chessman
eligible for the death penalty.
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
Over the course of the twelve years he spent on
death row, Chessman filed dozens of appeals and managed to successfully avoid
eight execution deadlines, often by mere 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
The Chessman affair put then-governor of California,
Edmund G. "Pat" 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 to 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.
Chessman was an exceptionally charismatic and
intelligent individual who eloquently argued his case in the court of public
opinion through letters, essays and books. While on death row, he wrote four
books. In Cell 2455, Death Row, he clearly implies he once killed a man,
though he was never prosecuted or convicted for this.
Chessman's memoirs became bestsellers and ignited a
world-wide 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. Brown's offices
were flooded with appeals for clemency from noted authors and intellectuals from
around the world, including Aldous Huxley, Ray Bradbury, Norman Mailer and
In addition to giving him world-wide notoriety, the
books earned Chessman hundreds of thousands of dollars in royalties.
In 1954 or 1955, California repealed the
Little Lindbergh Law and converted the death sentences of those who had been
convicted under its statutes to terms of life in prison. Some of these inmates
earned parole years later; Chessman, however, never had his sentence repealed.
His sentence was upheld, and Brown refused to grant clemency.
Brown's stay of execution, along with Chessman's
last appeals, ran out in April 1960 and Brown subsequently declined to grant
Chessman executive clemency. Exhausting a last-minute attempt to file a writ of
habeas corpus with the California Supreme Court, he finally went to the chamber
on the morning of May 2, 1960.
As the lethal gas was rising up in the gas chamber,
the phone in the execution room rang; the secretary from a U.S. district judge's
office calling with a ninth stay of execution (she had misdialed the number on
her first attempt). But because the hydrogen cyanide gas inside the chamber was
already at a lethal concentration, opening the chamber's door would have been
deadly for witnesses and prison officials. Chessman was pronounced dead just a
few minutes later. A reporter made an arrangement with him in which he agreed to
nod his head if the execution procedure was painful. Chessman vigorously nodded
several times before the gas took effect.
Most people familiar with Chessman's case allege
that, regardless of his actual guilt or innocence, Chessman's insistence on
representing himself ultimately led to his execution.
Chessman in popular culture
becoming famous as a country music star, Merle Haggard served time with
Chessman in San Quentin.
is mentioned on the Genesis album The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway.
album notes of I Ain't Marching Anymore, Phil Ochs references
Chessman as part of the inspiration for his song Iron Lady.
movie Kill Me If You Can, with Alan Alda, was based on Chessman's
In the song "Done Too Soon"
written by Neil Diamond, Chessman is listed along with several other famous
Caryl Chessman was once a household name and the
standard bearer for anti-capital punishment campaigning. As a criminal condemned
to die in the gas chamber he attracted the support of public figures and
celebrities from all areas of American soicety.
Chessman was just 27 years old when he was arrested in Los
Angeles on suspicion of being the notorious thief and sexual predator known as
the ‘Red-Light Bandit’.
The Bandit was known to approach victims in ‘Lovers Lane’
spots and flash a red light resembling that used by police in order to stop
motorists. He would then rob the vehicle’s occupants and sometimes abduct women
and force them to perform sexual acts.
Although Chessman signed a confession, he later recanted,
saying that it had resulted from police brutality.
It is still unclear as to whether the ‘Red-Light Bandit’ was
a single person – many claim it was simply a useful moniker used to describe the
acts of a number of criminals. Despite such speculation, Chessman was charged
with the entire crime spree attributed to the Bandit.
In some cases the evidence strongly pointed to Chessman. Two
women testified that he had robbed and sexually assaulted them by making them
perform fellatio after they had persuaded him not to rape them.
In all, evidence pointed to his involvement in 17 cases,
ranging from robbery to kidnapping. Unfortunately for Chessman the ‘Little
Lindbergh’ law, which was passed in California in 1933 after the public outcry
over the Lindbergh case, enforced severe penalties on kidnappers.
Chessman found himself facing a far more serious sentence
when the prosecution successfully argued that he had ‘kidnapped’ his victims by
moving them some distance from their cars. Any crime relating to the Lindberg
law meant either life in prison or the death sentence.
Chessman didn’t do himself any favours by representing
himself in court. His demeanour was interpreted as arrogant and matters weren’t
helped by the fact that the court stenographer died early on in the trial.
The transcription was now undertaken by a relative of the
prosecutor, without Chessman's approval. That relative, a chronic alcoholic,
made indiscriminate changes and couldn't even interpret his own handiwork in a
court of law. But despite such judicial bungling even Chessman’s own defence
lawyer George T. Davis thought the defendant difficult. However, Davis became
fond of Chessman over the years and even though he believed him to be arrogant
he also thought of him as a ‘decent and sensitive guy’.
"California was determined never to give him a retrial," said
Davis years later. "Our only hope was to get the case into a federal court."
During the trial Chessman repeatedly refuted claims that he
was the Red Light Bandit, but could not provide evidence corroborating his
Eventually the jury determined that one of the kidnapping
counts included bodily harm of the victim. The jury did not recommend mercy, so
the death sentence was automatically applied. Chessman was convicted as the ‘Red
Light Bandit’ for the kidnap and rape of one Mary Alice Meza.
During his twelve years on Death Row, Chessman became a cause
celebre. His case won media exposure as he presented himself not only as an
innocent man but also as one rehabilitated from his prior life of crime. His
case attracted interest and support among leading criminologists, liberal
intellectuals, and ordinary citizens, many of whom engaged in protests to halt
Among the many notables who supported Chessman’s fight
against execution were former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, writers Aldous
Huxley, Ray Bradbury, William Inge, Norman Mailer, Dwight MacDonald, Christopher
Isherwood, Carey McWilliams and Evangelist preacher Billy Graham.
Wenzell Brown, Chairman of the American Writers Committee
“Chessman is guilty of other crimes, to wit, robbing
bordellos and gambling dens operating in California. However, justice cannot be
served by convicting a man of one crime because he committed another.”
Chessman’s own talent for writing convinced many that a
prisoner, even one guilty of murder, could make a great contribution to society
and its understanding of the criminal mind.
Cell 2455 Death Row (1954) Chessman’s first book was an
autobiographical account of his own life in prison. By producing this work
Chessman demonstrated to his supporters and critics that he was a talented
intellectual and the kind of prisoner who exemplified the notion of the
Over the years more books followed such as Trial by Ordeal
and The Kid Was A Killer. But it was in his last book The Face of Justice,
completed in secret and just hours before his death, that he commented on why he
was likely to go to the gas chamber. He wrote that to the authorities he
"a justice-mocking, lawless legal Houdini and agent
provocateur assigned by the Devil (or was it the Communists?) to foment mistrust
of lawfully constituted Authority."
In Justice Chessman wrote about the conditions of the penal
system of the time. The book was well received and revealed that he was a great
thinker and writer. Actually writing the book in prison was an achievement in
itself due to the fact that Chessman’s cell was constantly checked. In order to
hide his daily prose he would transcribe his long drafts into shorthand and
dispose of the original draft down the toilet. The shorthand pieces were then
camouflaged with legal notions so that the wardens dismissed them.
All four of Chessman's books are now out of print, and the
unpublished writings that were known to exist at the time of his death have
never seen the light of day.
But at the time Chessman’s lawyer, George T. Davis, believed
that the media exposure of the case had brought the issue of capital punishment
to the forefront of American politics.
Despite Chessman’s protestations of his innocence, his own
memoirs, somewhat ironically testified to his criminal personality. It was clear
from a young age he seemed to be on a collision course with prison.
Davis himself, although declaring a fondness for Chessman,
also admitted that his client was hard-headed and unyielding. Unfortunately for
Chessman this attitude was often interpreted as arrogance and he was depicted by
the media as a ‘monster’ or ‘psychopathic wild beast’.
If anything, Chessman was more likely to be an intelligent
sociopath who had difficulty feeling empathy for others. Whatever the view of
him, he had become an embarrassment to the authorities and for some, in an
ultraconservative era, had undermined the judicial system.
Davis himself is not entirely sure why the authorities
decided to carry out the death sentence after eight stays of execution over
twelve years. He concedes that Chessman’s languishing on Death Row, gaining
celebrity status and media exposure, was a source of embarrassment to the
"The state of California's attitude then is like President
Bush's now," said the 94-year-old Davis forty-one years later. "That is, 'well,
he got his trial, so let's carry out the sentence'. No-matter what. Expediency
is all they were interested in."
Chessman had to deal with the psychological impact of
preparing himself for death on eight separate occasions. He would take the ‘dead
man’s walk’ to the gas chamber that was housed just below his cellblock. Then at
the eleventh-hour a stay of execution would be approved and Chessman would take
the elevator back up to his cell. It is difficult to think of many people being
able to survive such a continuous ordeal without breaking down.
However, on May 2nd, 1960, time finally ran out for Chessman.
At 10am, Chessman’s execution was given the go ahead. Davis had anticipated that
the petition for leniency would be rejected and had arranged for a cab to take
him to the US District Court by 9am. This was the cliff-hanger of all cliff-hangers
for at precisely 10am the cyanide pellets were to be dropped into the gas
What followed was the kind of nail biting scene expected in a
Hitchcock thriller as Davis had to rush over to the district court several
blocks away and re-present his petition after the State Supreme Court had
rejected it by 4 to 3.
With astute foresight, Davis had sent the 15 page document to
the Judge the day before. Unfortunately the Judge had still not read it.
Standing in the courtroom, with one eye on the clock and the
other watching him carefully leaf through the thick manuscript, the opportunity
to save Chessman’s life was hanging on a thread. With only one minute before the
cyanide pellets were to be dropped, the Judge finally agreed to a stay of
All it needed was a direct call to the chamber phone to stop
the execution. Whether it was a planned operation by the State or a genuine case
of bad luck and bad timing, the secretary who was to make the call, misdialled.
By the time she got through to the warden, the pellets had
been dropped and any attempt to open the chamber or stop the process may have
endangered other people.
After twelve years maintaining his innocence on Death Row,
Caryl Chessman was finally executed at San Quentin prison.