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. 

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