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The 9 Lives of a Death Row Inmate

Updated on April 10, 2013

The story behind the death penalty

How long after a person is convicted of a crime do you think they should be allowed to appeal before they finally use up all their appeals? Would it surprise you that one person sentenced to the gas chamber had almost 12 years of appeals before he was finally executed? For those 12 years he was housed in a maximum-security single occupancy cell on death row.

Would it surprise you that this individual was sentenced to death for the crimes of robbery, kidnapping and attempted rape? While not inconsequential crimes, in todayâs justice system unless convicted of murder usually the death penalty is not even considered. Caryl Chessmanâs story is filled with these unusual items from the actual crime itself, to his trial and ultimately his 12 years of appeals.

This is his story.

Image Credit: mark-shea

The Crime

In 1948 Caryl Chessman was convicted of 17 counts included robbery, kidnapping, attempted rape, and sodomy in Los Angeles. He was known as the Red Light Bandit, which consisted of driving behind a car and turning on a red 'bubble' light on his dash and impersonating a police officer performing a traffic stop. He would pull over the car and either rob or if they were intriguing to him, rape the passenger of the car. The kidnapping aspect took affect when he would take the passenger into his car and move them sometimes no more than a couple of blocks away for the sexual assault.

Due to events surrounding the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh child, kidnapping was made a capital offence. In this case, even though the women were only transported blocks away it still fell under the crime of kidnapping and was thus Caryl was charged with a capital crime.

In addition, in the 1940s sex was considered to be incredibly basic in definition. In some states it was actually a crime punishable with lifetime imprisonment if you were convicted of having oral sex even if it was between two consenting or married adults. Thus, when it came out in court that Caryl forced the women to have oral sex, it horrified the jury and the general public. Rape should never be considered anything less than horrifying, but modern readers need to place ourselves in the settings of the 1940s. Having the women in open court describe oral sex was something that was considered both repugnant and perverted.

Caryl was convicted on 17 of 18 counts that were levied against him.

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The Case

While no court case is perfect, especially with years of hindsight, many agree that the Caryl Chessman case had more than its share of questionable actions that might have changed the final outcome. Unfortunately, these discrepancies are the fodder for the appeals and court motions that would last for 11 years.

Probably the item that tops the list was when Caryl decided to act in his own defense. While some would argue that it was his constitutional right, there were several things that probably should have been caught or argued during the trial that never got brought up. In many modern cases even when a defendant requests to defend themselves there is usually a public defender that is assigned to assist to at least make sure someone with legal training is catching those small legal nuances that can make all the difference. Appeals can only argue if the process or the trial or behavior during trial was improper. Caryl could not appeal based on questions he did not ask or alternate views of the crime he did not bring up at trial.

However there were odd items that did take place during the original trial. For instance, the court reporter died before he could transcribe the full transcript of the proceedings from their shorthand to full text. The replacement that attempted to finish this task could not adequately transcribe key pages of notes that could have revealed information necessary for appeals. Was there a grand conspiracy against him, or key testimony that needed to be re-read? This was some of the arguments Caryl had.

Additionally, there were other crimes that were committed while Caryl was incarcerated that had a smiliar MO as the “Red Light Bandit” and could conceivably give credence to his belief that there was someone else who committed the crimes. Again, since he did not bring up this information during the trial it was difficult to get courts to consider this new evidence.

Perhaps with a microscope any court case would have some of these discrepancies. There is no way of knowing if it would have changed the opinion of the jury, but this led to a tremendous amount of legal maneuverings over the course of 12 years.

The Many Years of Appeals

For just under 12 years Caryl , with the help now of professional lawyers mounted appeals to his death sentence. Arguing everything from biased judges to improprieties during the trial, he worked to get his case overturned or even re-tried. Each time he was turned down. When the case of the discrepancies in the court records went to trial, it was determined that while there were thousands of errors, the transcript as a whole had enough continuity to provide reasonable understanding of the trial. As he exhausted his appeals his lawyers started to request clemency or pardons from the governor. Turns out that for the governor to grant clemency, he actually needed the state supreme court to vote in favor. Twice they voted, and both times declined to grant clemency.

In the meantime he wrote and published 4 books that were actually quite popular during the time. In fact so popular a movie was actually made based on one of his books, which of course were based on his life. Based on his popularity there were cries from around the world asking for his death sentence to be commuted. Even the pope wrote to request his clemency.

Ultimately on May 2, 1960 Caryl Chessman was executed for his crimes.

What we can learn from this story

Few will be able to read this story and not think about if it is appropriate for a civilized society to support the death penalty. Some believe that taking a life is the ultimate revenge and justice should not be about revenge since it has been proven that it is not a true deterrent to crime. Others believe that there is no perfect way of absolutely guaranteeing that justice has found the right person as we have found that DNA has exonerated many that were previously convicted. To kill a prisoner removes the ability to ever re-examine a case beyond an academic exercise. There are others that simply look at the economics of the death penalty. All the appeals in the courts cost the state millions of dollars, much more than incarcerating a person for life in a prison, perhaps this just makes bad economic sense.

Ultimately each person should make his or her own decision, but the key here is to form an opinion. When was the last time you thought about the death penalty and what your stand is on this particular issue? Think it doesn’t matter? How many times do you read about practices in other countries and are horrified that ‘they’ allow it to take place. ‘They’ being the population. Stoning an adulterer, chopping off the hand of a thief, legalizing prostitution are some more sensationalized examples, but perhaps to others allowing the death penalty is just as horrifying. An educated population is the first and perhaps most important step to evolving a society as a whole. If each of us do not take the time to learn about situations such as Caryl’s and make decisions for ourselves what right do we have to call ourselves citizens of the society?

“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” -- Edmund Burke

My overall review of the book

Chessman, and his nine lives on death row is an interesting mix between a true story and fictional dialogue. This mix allows for both an education into significant events in this country and an easily readable story. This book draws the reader in and shares a story that taken as a whole educates on the multiple view points of the death penalty. Many times the media only focuses on the victims or the penal system and ignores the financial implications or even the prisoner themselves. While hard to have sympathy for a convicted criminal, there have been too many cases of incorrectly convicted individuals to not take this into consideration.

The author clearly has his own bias toward the issue of putting a prisoner to death, but still tries to treat the subject with as much of an even hand as possible. Readers will find this book to be easily readable even if the subject matter can be upsetting. I recommend approaching this book with not only the goal of learning about an interesting legal case but also examining our beliefs in how we should conduct justice.

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A quick read that is surprisingly easy read but also extremely thought provoking.

An interview with the author

Q: You obviously have strong views when you wrote this book, do you feel that impacted your writing at all?

A: Yes, I had strong views against the death penalty. I also have strong views against religious beliefs dominating judicial action. As a practicing attorney for sixty years, I have seen the injustices occur based on eye-witness identification. I personally knew Caryl Chessman and believed he was guilty of all the crimes of which he was convicted, except for the two death penalty crimes. I personally knew Rosalie Asher, George Davis and J.MIller Leavy. I was aware of the domestic rabid unreasoning demand for Chessman's execution and the world-wide opposition to it. I believe that all of these factors motivated to write the book.

Q: Do you believe you have made an impact based on this book, and if so what is that impact?

A: I can't say that my book made an impact, or even contributed to the movement to abolish capital punishment in California. (a proposition to abolish it in California was narrowly defeated in the last election, but has just been approved in Maryland.) In so far as eyewitness identification, we read seemingly every day where someone is exonerated after having been identified by an eye-witness, sometimes the victim herself.

Q: Did you go through any emotional challenges while researching and then writing this book?

A: No, I don't believe I went through any emotional challenges in researching or writing the book. The idea of the book has been fermenting in me for the past 50 years. There has been a great deal of misconception regarding the Chessman case. Every so often I read an article which identifies him as a blatant mistake.

Q: What was your favorite part of writing this story?

A: My favorite party of writing the book was the somewhat whimsical interchange between Governor Brown and Cecil Poole and the philosophical struggle among the justices of the supreme court.

Q: What are your goals moving forward?

I have no further goals. I have been intending to write this book for the past 50 years and I finally sat down and did it...although it took me over ten years to do it. I felt that its completion and publication acted as a catharsis.

What are your thoughts on death penalty or Caryl's story

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    • Diana Wenzel profile image

      Renaissance Woman 4 years ago from Colorado

      I think the death penalty is a very complicated issue. Having lived in one state that tops the chart in administering the death penalty, and then another state that put a moratorium on executions, I have certainly thought about where I stand. I believe in many regards our death penalty system is flawed. In addition, there isn't much evidence that the death penalty is a true crime deterrent. For those reasons and more, I feel we need to reexamine our approach to dealing with capital crimes and how we dole out justice.