November 3, 2001
1:32 PM   Subscribe

In 1948 Caryl Chessman was awarded two death sentences on two counts of attempted rape. He was probably innocent, yet he was executed in 1960 for more or less "being a smartass." In the years between his sentencing and death, he wrote three memoirs and a novel, which sold well. After the first memoir the prison forbade him to write about anything other than the legalities of his case, so he developed an elaborate code to get his work out to his lawyer. His spirit never broke, as strange as it was. This is his story.
posted by kittyloop (13 comments total)
And here's another link about Chessman for those of you who have a little time on their hands this fine Saturday!
posted by kittyloop at 1:35 PM on November 3, 2001

"Kill Me If You Can" (1977) starring Alan Alda & Talia Shire.
posted by RavinDave at 1:46 PM on November 3, 2001

I remember Chessman as a kid from the entry in the Guinness Book of Records as the longest any man had been on death row. He looked incredibly cool as the links bear out. Has the record been broken since then? Is there a law of how long you can be on death row before they let you off, like the one (I'm not sure on this) that if they don't execute you on the first go (because of some tech difficulty) they can't try again. I suppose sanctuary is out too, where do I have left to hide?
posted by Zootoon at 1:59 PM on November 3, 2001

Yes, he was a smartass--to the very end. "The California executioner keeps banker’s hours. He never kills before 10 o’clock in the morning, never after 4 in the afternoon." (from a letter written by Caryl Chessman, in San Quentin Prison, on the eve of his execution, New York Post May 3, 1960).

Was he guilty? "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."
posted by Carol Anne at 2:02 PM on November 3, 2001

'Could you give me that number again, Mr. Davis? I must have misdialed it.'
Wow, how must she have reacted to hearing "the pellets have just dropped"?
posted by Zootoon at 2:12 PM on November 3, 2001

I read this this morning and found it very disquieting. It tied in serendipitously with my finishing up Dreiser's An American Tragedy a short while later.
posted by rushmc at 2:28 PM on November 3, 2001

????I think there may be some controversy about the eyewitness testimony, but I'm not too confident on backing that up. How's that for vague. I'd read conflicting accounts, so I went with innocent, because I'm just that type of girl.

I get the impression Chessman presents his case convincingly in his books (and who wouldn't try if facing the gas chamber), and William Kunstler wrote a book about the trial that I'd like to come accross some day. Best quote I read about the mess came from Ken Kesey: "As you read all the stuff, followed the story, you could see that this guy could be innocent and yet he was a real turd."
posted by kittyloop at 3:13 PM on November 3, 2001

Whoops, that ???? should read Carol Anne. Sorry, my cat was helping out there, and I hadn't noticed his contribution.
posted by kittyloop at 3:15 PM on November 3, 2001

Golly, kittyloop, I've never been called "????" before!

I'm a native San Franciscan (born in 1945). Caryl Chessman was part of the landscape, so to speak, as he was on San Quentin's Death Row--and in the news--from 1948 to 1960. I don't think capital punishment was appropriate in his case, but that doesn't make him innocent of the crimes he was tried for.
posted by Carol Anne at 3:53 PM on November 3, 2001

Carol Anne -

Yeah, after poking around I agree with you - I think the objections to the evidence are more modern, legal loophole arguments, which were non-existant before Miranda. I imagine that people were scrambing for anything to help out in this case...I'm no fan of forced fellatio, but the gas chamber is a bit much. Uh, so to speak.
posted by kittyloop at 7:11 PM on November 3, 2001

I get the impression Chessman presents his case convincingly in his books

When I write up the story, I always end up the hero :)
posted by UncleFes at 9:20 PM on November 3, 2001

"Caryl Chessman sniffs the air and leads the parade. He knows, in a scent, he can bottle all he made".

Never knew who he was until this thread.
posted by kerplunk at 6:27 AM on November 4, 2001

Although I didn't live in California, I remember Chessman and the furor surrounding his execution. I believe that Governor Pat Brown (father of ex-Gov. and current Mayor of Oakland, Jerry Brown) considered the execution to be one of the greatest regrets of his public life.
posted by MAYORBOB at 6:38 AM on November 4, 2001

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