Followimng moved for Wednesday PMs and is now available for AMs TODAY’S TOPIC: Ninth Reprieve
Followimng moved for Wednesday PMs and is now available for AMs TODAY’S TOPIC: Ninth Reprieve Came Too Late for Caryl Chessman
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ Caryl Whittier Chessman had the heart of a thief, the spirit of a prizefighter and the lives of a cat.
In more than 12 years on San Quentin’s Death Row, the convicted kidnapper and sex offender won delays on eight execution dates. The ninth official reprieve - on May 2, 1960 - came after Chessman had been strapped to a chair in the gas chamber. The phone rang 15 seconds too late.
The execution, which touched off protests worldwide, was the last line of a story everyone knew: how Chessman - condemned to die although he had never killed - used the legal system, a battered typewriter and royalties from four books to keep death at arm’s length for a dozen years.
″Even now, I just don’t feel Chessman was convicted by clear and unequivocal proof,″ said George Davis, a San Francisco attorney who represented Chessman during the last five years of appeals.
A big, dark-haired man with a protruding lower lip and a nose that looked as if it had been broken in the ring, Chessman had a record of car thefts, assaults and robberies dating to his teens. When he was arrested as the Los Angeles-area ″red light bandit″ on Jan. 23, 1948, he had spent one-third of his 26 years in prison.
He was charged with 18 counts of kidnapping, robbery, attempted rape and unnatural sex acts in connection with the ″red light″ robberies, so named because the bandit used a red light in his car to make his victims believe he was a police officer.
An intelligent man with a superior manner observers said hurt his cause, Chessman insisted on representing himself, despite inexperience and limited education.
He was convicted by the 11-woman, one-man Los Angeles Superior Court jury of 17 counts, including two kidnapping charges that carried the death penalty. Those involved two women who were forced to perform oral copulation on their captor.
″This man killed no one. He would not be executed under the system of American jurisprudence today. Why? Because we’ve expanded due process, the rights of the defendant, fairness. And the offense with which he was charged is no longer a death penalty offense,″ said William Bennett, who as state deputy attorney general argued against Chessman before the U.S. Supreme Court.
″He was no monster,″ Bennett said. ″He was, to my view, an insecure human being fighting desperately for his life.″
The death of another man kept Chessman alive. Court reporter Ernest Perry, who died before he could make a complete transcript of Chessman’s trial, left notes the Court Reporters’ Association declared undecipherable. Stanley Fraser, a relative of Chessman prosecutor J. Miller Leavy, agreed to try.
The transcript formed the basis of Chessman’s appeals. He worked his way through state courts to the federal courts and back. As each legal door slammed behind him, he rattled the knob of another.
Chessman filed seven petitions with the U.S. Supreme Court before it finally ordered California in 1957 either to conduct a hearing or release him. After a 42-day hearing, the presiding judge ordered 2,000 changes in the trial transcript - and returned Chessman to Death Row.
On Feb. 17, 1960, two days before his eighth execution date, the California Supreme Court voted 4-3 against executive clemency.
Gov. Edmund ″Pat″ Brown, opposed to the death penalty, said he was powerless to act without the panel’s approval, a legal requirement in the case of someone with two felony convictions.
But a day later, less than 10 hours before Chessman was scheduled to die, Brown ordered a 60-day stay and called a special session of the Legislature to consider abolition of capital punishment. The proposal, considerably watered down, died in committee, and Brown’s appearance of indecision angered both sides.
″Every place I went in 1960, they booed me,″ said Brown.
Chessman became a martyr for opponents of capital punishment, a symbol of everything that could go wrong with the system. His 1954 autobiography, ″Cell 2455, Death Row,″ sold a half-million copies in 18 languages. He was on the cover of Time magazine. He counted Marlon Brando, Brigitte Bardot and Albert Einstein among his supporters.
But for every supporter, there was someone who wanted him dead.
″I think it cut both ways,″ said Stanley Mosk, attorney general at the time of Chessman’s execution and now a California Supreme Court justice. ″There were some people who felt he should not have been executed because he didn’t take a life, and others who lost patience with him because of his rather shrewd use of the legal system.″
Davis, now 77, recalled how, 25 years ago, he and attorney Rosalie Asher raced a petition to the office of Federal Judge Louis Goodman after the state Supreme Court refused to intervene, less than a half hour before Chessman’s 10 a.m. execution.
″And finally, it was a minute to 10,″ Davis said. ″(Goodman) says to me, ‘I’ll grant the stay.’ He says, ‘Get me the warden.’ I said to him, ″Judge, will you allow me to phone the warden for you, and I’ll hand you the phone?′ And he said, ‘No, my secretary will do it.’
″The seconds are going. The secretary’s on the phone, and she misdials the number. She turns and says, ‘I got the wrong number, I must have mixed up the digits.’ And I’m giving her the number again, and it’s 10 o’clock. She gets the warden within seconds.
″And the judge said to me, ‘It’s too late. The warden said he just dropped the pellets.’ Rosalie and I are walking out of the judge’s chambers. The pellets have dropped. Chessman’s dying, and there’s nothing left to do.″