Caryl Chessman, 1958
|The Caryl Chessman case probably engendered more anti-capital punishment
sentiment than any other case has, before or since.|
Chessman was a 27 year old parolee from Folsom Prison who had spent the better part of his adult life in and out of prison in January 1948 when he was arrested in Los Angeles as the Red-Light Bandit. The Bandit would approach victims parked in lonely spots, flash a red light resembling that used by the police, and rob the victims -- sometimes taking the woman to another area and forcing her to perform sexual acts with him.
Chessman signed a confession, which he later recanted, saying that it had resulted from police brutality. But eyewitness testimony from the women he assaulted and a mountain of evidence led to his conviction on seventeen counts, ranging from robbery to kidnapping. The jury determined that one of the kidnapping counts included bodily harm of the victim. Under California's "Little Lindbergh" law passed in 1933, in cases involving kidnapping with bodily harm the sentence was either life in prison without possibility of parole or death. The jury did not recommend mercy, so death in the gas chamber was the automatic sentence for Chessman.
Then began a 12 year struggle by Chessman to escape the gas chamber in San Quentin Prison. Cell 2455 in death row was his address, and he wrote 4 books in his own defense. All were very popular, and some were translated into other languages. They were to no avail, however, and after 8 stays of execution he was finally executed on May 2, 1960.
The unusual case, along with the popularity of the books, led to an outpouring of pleas on his behalf from throughout the world. Among those who wrote: Eleanor Roosevelt, Pablo Cassals, Aldous Huxley, Ray Bradbury, William Inge, Norman Mailer, Dwight MacDonald, Christopher Isherwood, Carey McWilliams, Billy Graham, and Robert Frost.
Ironically, the Governor of California who finally allowed the execution saying his hands were tied, was an avowed opponent of capital punishment, Edmund G. Brown.