The Wrongful Execution of Caryl Chessman

Oct 5, 2009 - by Randy Radic - 0 Comments

Sept. 30, 2009 Updated June 25, 2010

Caryl Chessman

Caryl Chessman

Convicted in 1948 as “The Red Light Bandit,” Caryl Chessman would become an internationally known “Death Row” author and make the cover of Time Magazine. His appeal attorney came within minutes of preventing his wrongful execution in 1960.

by Randy Radic

Attorney Rosalie Asher’s eleventh-hour appeal to a California Supreme Court judge came within minutes of halting the wrongful execution of Caryl Chessman in 1960.  On May 2, 1960, as Chessman was being strapped into the chair in the gas chamber at San Quentin, Asher was in Sacramento, presenting a motion to Judge Goodman of the California Supreme Court.  Judge Goodman was intrigued by her presentation, which was a photograph of Charles Terranova, who fit the description provided by victims of the “Red Light Bandit.”  Terranova had a record of 13 convictions for crimes committed in the Los Angeles area, along with an FBI rap sheet for armed robbery and attempted rape.  And more importantly, in Chessman’s very first interview with the police after his arrest, Chessman had said, “The guy you’re looking for is Terranova.  The red light and the sexual assaults, that’s all him.”

Judge Goodman said he needed more time to study it.  Rosalie Asher told him there was no time.

Judge Goodman issued a one-hour stay of execution so that he could study the motion.  He instructed his secretary to call the warden at San Quentin.  When told to halt the execution, the assistant warden, Reed Nelson, replied that it was too late.  “The execution has begun.”

The pellets of cyanide had already been dropped into the sulfuric acid, which sat in a bucket beneath Chessman’s legs.  The deadly fumes tendriled up to his mouth and nose.  It took him eight minutes to die.

Three hours later a black hearse from the Harry M. Williams Funeral Home in San Rafael arrived to pick up the blue-green, lifeless body of Caryl Chessman. The following Monday afternoon, Chessman’s corpse was cremated at the Tamalpais Cemetery in San Rafael.  Two people watched as the cremation occurred:  the mortician, and a woman who had placed two red rosebuds on the coffin before it entered the oven.  The woman’s name was Bernice Freeman.  There was no ceremony, no religious rites. 

After the cremation, the mortician put the ashes in a cheap metal urn, dark gray in color.  He set the urn on a shelf in the mortuary and awaited instructions as to what to do with them.

Chessman had wanted to be buried in his mother’s grave at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.  Rosalie Asher had contacted Forest Lawn regarding the arrangements.  The man at Forest Lawn had said he would get back to her in a few days.  When he called back, he told Asher that her request would not be possible, as the dead man “was unrepentant and an avowed agnostic.”  His presence in Forest Lawn “would detract from the spiritual values of Forest Lawn.”

A week later Asher drove to the mortuary in San Rafael and picked up the urn.  Setting it on the passenger’s seat, she drove back to her office where she set the urn on the shelf next to her desk and there it would sit for the next 14 years, awaiting a final flourish.

In early March 1974, Asher arranged to have the ashes scattered from an airplane – a red and white Cessna – just a little west of Santa Cruz, California.  At an altitude of 2,000 feet, the door of the Cessna opened and the dusty relics of a human being were sprinkled out. Caught by the wind, the ashes wafted and twirled, finally settling on the surface of the blue ocean water below.  The Channel Islands poked up nearby, like the fins of some giant water beast.  Leviathans, real beasts of the ocean, swam beneath the waves – humpbacked whales.  As the whales breached, little flakes of a burnt, pulverized body rode upon their backs, then were quickly washed aside.

Caryl Whittier Chessman was born May 27, 1921 in St. Joseph, Michigan. His life, though simple in one respect, that he spent most of it in one prison or another, was enormously complicated in many other respects.

The beginning of the end began in 1948.  Caryl had just been paroled from prison when the police arrested him in Los Angeles.  Supposedly, he was the “Red Light Bandit.”  This person nicknamed the “Red Light Bandit,” used a red flashing light on his car to impersonate a police car.  He would come up behind cars and turn on the red light.  Once the cars stopped, he would rob the drivers and passengers or, if they were young and female, also rape them.

A red light was found in the stolen car Chessman was driving.  He was charged with multiple counts of robbery, assault, rape and kidnapping.  Chessman elected to act as his own attorney.  And although intelligent and educated, this was probably a mistake.  A competent criminal defense attorney could have probably negotiated a plea bargain, but Chessman wanted to assert his innocence.

His self-defense was based on two connected theories:  mistaken identity and the presumption that he was being framed.  He also claimed that the police tortured him while they interrogated him, thus his statements were made under duress.

Chessman had no evidence to support any of his theories or allegations.  On the other hand, since forensic science had yet to be invented, the prosecution had only two pieces of evidence:  the red light discovered in the car he was driving, and his prior criminal record, which did include robbery, but not rape.  The police merely assumed he had jumped up a level and had added rape to his repertoire.  The red light was circumstantial, but in the end most evidence is circumstantial, and the question to be answered was this:  What circumstances put the red light in his car?  Chessman’s prior record was inconclusive but damning.  He did have a propensity for crime.

Chessman claimed the red light found in his car was not his.  In fact, Chessman maintained he had no knowledge the light was in the car, which was a gray Ford he admitted he had stolen.  Driving stolen cars matched Chessman’s modus operandi.  The police confirmed that the car had been stolen, but the rightful owner of the car asserted that there was no red light in the car before it was stolen.   Therefore, by inference, the red light belonged to Chessman.

After five days of deliberation, the jury found him guilty and he was sentenced to death. The trial had begun on January 16, 1948 and ended on May 21, 1948.  Two death sentences were handed down by the court on June 25, 1948.  Transferred to San Quentin’s infamous death row, Chessman filed appeals for the next 12 years.  Eight times his execution was stayed.

To the very end, Chessman declared his innocence.  He suggested he knew who the real “Red Light Bandit” was, but he refused to divulge the information to protect his young daughter from reprisals.  And he did have a daughter.

While in San Quentin, Caryl Chessman wrote four books.  Cell 2455, Death Row, published in 1954; Trial by Ordeal, published in 1955; The Face of Justice, published in 1957; and The Kid Was a Killer, published in 1960.  Each of the books became national and international bestsellers and made Chessman wealthy.

His most famous book, Cell 2455, Death Row, is a memoir.  In it, Chessman detailed his earlier life, his life on death row, and his previous crimes.  He admitted he was a criminal, but stated flatly that he was not the “Red Light Bandit,” that he was not guilty of the crimes for which he had been sentenced to death.

Cell 2455, Death Row, and his other books, made Caryl Chessman the focal point of the scandal of the death penalty.  Chessman’s case and his pending death became a celebrated cause throughout the world.  His defenders included Ray Bradbury, Aldous Huxley, Norman Mailer, Robert Frost, and Dominique Lapierre – to no avail.

All of this notoriety established artificial tensions which, in turn, resulted in overcompensation.  And in the end, Caryl Chessman wasn’t a person anymore, he became a political pawn.  When criminals become famous, write books, make hundreds of thousands of dollars from those books, and appear on the cover of Time Magazine (March 21, 1960 cover, which simply said Caryl Chessman; the title of the article was “Justice:  The Chessman Affair”) – in other words, when they buck the system in which they are incarcerated – then the powers that be feel threatened.  They are afraid they will lose their power, their status, and their perks.  They will look foolish.  At that point, it becomes political – which is to say it’s time to make a point.  And the point is this:  We’re in charge, not some common thug.

Caryl Chessman, in a sense, had to die.  Any other conclusion would have been unacceptable.

Caryl Chessman has been dead for over 50 years and his name, for the most part, is, more than anything now, a footnote in the on-going battle over the death penalty in the United States.  His books collect dust on the shelves of libraries across America.  Was he guilty?  I doubt it.  Was he wrongly executed?  I believe so.  Should he have been in prison?  Yes.  And I believe this, too.  That he would agree with those three answers.

Caryl Chessman was innocent because he did not fit the description given by the “Red Light Bandit’s” victims, who told the court in the course of the trial that the individual had “several front teeth that were crooked and a scar over his left eye.”  Chessman had perfectly straight teeth and no scar, whereas Charles Terranova had crooked teeth and a scar over his left eye.  Additionally, the description of the “Red Light Bandit’s” vehicle did not tally with the Ford Chessman had been driving at the time of his arrest.  The “Bandit’s” car had been described as a light-colored two-door coupe, while Chessman’s stolen Ford was a dark four-door sedan.  Both pieces of evidence – the descriptions of the “Bandit” and the differences between the two cars – never appeared in the police file submitted to the court.  (Three years after Chessman’s execution, the U.S. Supreme Court in Brady v. Maryland ruled that the prosecution’s withholding of information favorable or exculpatory to the defendant violated the U.S. Constitution and entitled the aggrieved defendant to a new trial.)

In his memoir Cell 2455, Chessman admitted he was a criminal, guilty of grand theft-auto, robbery and armed robbery.  He felt he deserved to be in prison for a long time for his crimes – yet not forever.  He was right.

What Caryl Chessman did not deserve was to be executed for crimes he did not commit. 

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