Archive for October, 2011



[Picture of Chessman]Caryl Chessman’s was the first legal matter to come to my attention as a young man.  His case had a fairly profound effect on me even though he was before my time. For me, his name just keeps cropping up again and again.

It is an unusual name, Caryl Chessman. I’ve always thought that. Maybe this has something to do with why it has stuck? Who knows?

Caryl was an out-and-out bad guy. A petty criminal on a life of petty crime. Let’s be clear, Chessman was a bad guy.

It this not about Caryl himself, but Justice —  and questions about the Death Penalty and the sheer Force of Destiny that make this story.

Here’s what happened: in California USA, back in 1948, Caryl Chessman (aged 27) was arrested and put on trial accused of being “The Red Light Bandit” who robbed couples parked up in lovers’ lanes.

He protested his innocence to the end.

It is weird to realise that California had the death penalty for kidnapping. The next weird thing to note is that it defined kidnapping as taking a person a short walking distance from one car to another.

Chessman was not tried on robbery and / or rape (which would not have got him the death penalty), yep — you guessed it, he was tried and found guilty of kidnapping.

Chessman defended himself in court. He tried to query the distance of 22 feet as not being kidnapping, he then explained that there was not sufficient evidence to show that he was “The Red Light Bandit”, he also suggested that the police questioning was flawed and his statement obtained under coercion or even torture.

Despite his best efforts, he was found guilty and was on death row for 12 years.

During these 12 years he was almost executed 8 times, getting a stay of execution by mere hours! Throughout he protested his innocence and continued to argue his case while in prison, writing letters, essays and books. He won his right to appeal on procedural and technical grounds, but the appeal was lost.

He was taken to be executed in the gas chamber at San Quentin on 2 May 1960. At exactly the same time, the Judge had obtained late some new evidence and asked his secretary to call the warden to stop the execution.  However, the secretary misdialled, and by the time she’d got through to the Warden, the gas had started to be released into the chamber — it was too late!

I am sure you can see why this case sticks in the mind.  It created a worldwide buzz over the 12 years, and gathered a lot of the great and good and the rich and famous to speak out against capital punishment.

Was Chessman a bad guy? – Yes. Was he the “Bandit”?  – Who knows?

Let’s say he was the Bandit and he did those things, does that merit the death penalty?  How does 22 feet equal kidnapping? And even so, ought kidnapping be punishable by death? Is it humane to put a man on death row for 12 years? Is it humane to rescue a man from being killed at the very last minute? And — at the end of the day — he was denied clemency and his chance to survive (and maybe clear his name) by the misfortune of bad timing and a wrong number on the phone!  He was NOT SUPPOSED TO HAVE BEEN KILLED.

He proved to be a remarkable man, with his writings  galvanising the support for the cause against the death penalty in the USA. Whenever I hear arguments about capital punishment, injustice, or the inhumanity of a so-called modern civilised state, I cannot help but think of Caryl Chessman;  it could be you, or me. I’ve had nightmares ever since.