Caryl Chessman (Caryl Chessman)

Caryl Chessman

He was born Carol Whittier Chessman in St. Joseph, Michigan, the only child of Hallie Lillian (née Cottle) and Whittier Serl Chessman who were both devout Baptists. In 1922, the family relocated to Glendale, California. Chessman’s father worked a series of job but was ultimately unsuccessful in every venture he pursued. Whittier Chessman became despondent and attempted suicide twice. In 1929, Chessman’s mother Hallie was paralyzed after she was injured in a car accident. As a child, Chessman battled asthma which left him weak and contracted encephalitis which he later claimed changed his personality. After recovering, Chessman began to reject his parents’ strict Baptist upbringing and began to rebel by committing petty crimes. The family was hit hard by the Depression and Chessman later recalled that he began stealing food and other items as an adolescent to help his parents. He continued stealing into his teen years (during this time, Chessman changed the spelling of his first name from “Carol” to “Caryl”).

In July 1937, Chessman was sent to Preston Industrial School after he stole a car. He was released in April 1938 but was sent back the following month for stealing another car. In October 1939, Chessman was sent to the Los Angeles County Road Camp after yet another car theft. It was there that he met a group of young criminals known as the “Boy Bandit Gang”. After his release, Chessman joined the gang and, in April 1941, was arrested for a number of robberies and shoot outs with police the gang committed. Chessman claimed he was the gang’s leader and was convicted of robbery. He sent to San Quentin State Prison and then transferred to the California Institution for Men (known as “Chino”). He escaped in October 1943 but was arrested in November for robbery. Chessman was sentenced to five years to life, and served the majority of his sentence at Folsom State Prison. He was released in December 1947 and returned to Glendale.

In the first three weeks of January 1948, a rash of robberies and thefts were reported throughout the Greater Los Angeles Area. On January 3, two men robbed a haberdashery in Pasadena with a .45 caliber automatic pistol. On January 13, a 1946 Ford Coupe was stolen from a Pasadena street. On January 18, a man driving what was described as a 1947 Ford coupe (the 1946 and 1947 Ford coupe models are indistinguishable) pulled a couple over who were driving near Malibu Beach. The driver thought the car was a police officer as the man used a red light to pull the car over. After approaching the vehicle, the man pulled out a .45 and robbed the couple. Later that day, a second couple was robbed in the same manner near the Rose Bowl. Police quickly began to suspect that the same man was responsible for the crimes. The media began reporting on the stories and dubbed the suspect “The Red Light Bandit”. On January 19, a third couple was robbed as they sat parked on a hill in West Pasadena. This time, the suspect forced a woman, Regina Johnson, to perform oral sex on him. On January 22, another couple was pulled over and robbed. The suspect had followed the couple while they were driving on Mulholland Drive on their way home from a church dance. This time, the suspect took the girl, 17-year old Mary Alice Meza, back to his vehicle. When her boyfriend drove off to get help, the Bandit attempted to force him off the road. He then took Meza to a secluded area and where he threatened to kill her boyfriend unless she agreed to submit to his demands. He then forced her to engage in oral and anal sex.

Based on the description and details Meza and her boyfriend gave police, an all-points bulletin was issued on January for a man driving a tan or grey 1946 Ford coupe. A few hours after the bulletin was issued, two police spotted a 1946 Ford coupe in North Hollywood that was also identified as the car of two suspects who had robbed a clothing store in Redondo Beach. After police pulled up behind the car, it sped off. After a high speed, five mile car chase, Chessman and an accomplice, David Knowles, were arrested. After 72 hours, Chessman confessed to being the “Red Light Bandit” (he would later claim that his confession came after police beat and tortured him). He was also positively identified by Regina Johnson and Mary Alice Mezan. In late January 1948, Chessman was charged with eighteen counts of robbery, kidnapping, and rape. After a three week trial, Chessman was convicted on seventeen of the eighteen counts on May 21, 1948. He was condemned to death. David Knowles, the man who was arrested with Chessman, was also charged and convicted. In 1950, his conviction was thrown out due to “impermissible abuse of the law”.

Part of the controversy surrounding the Chessman case stems from how the death penalty was applied. At the time, under California’s version of the “Little Lindbergh Law”, any crime that involved kidnapping with bodily harm could be considered a capital offense. Two of the counts against Chessman alleged that he dragged a Mary Alice Meza a considerable distance from her car demanding oral sex from her and separately took another victim, Regina Johnson, twenty-two feet from her car to his. Despite the short distance Johnson was moved, the court considered it sufficient to qualify as kidnapping, thus making Chessman eligible for the death penalty. In 1948, the death penalty was applicable to Chessman under Section 209 of the California Penal Code. Because he had been convicted of moving Regina Johnson and also Mary Alice Meza more than twenty feet, he was eligible for the death penalty under the fact that it was a kidnapping and robbery (he supposedly robbed Johnson’s husband) with bodily harm. So thus, if any person “kidnapped” someone and moved them twenty feet (the distance of one bedroom to another in any given house) and the victim had suffered “bodily harm”, meaning even if the victim walked with a limp afterwards, and robbed that person, the perpetrator/defendant could be sentenced to death under the “Little Lindbergh Law”, Section 209. Since Chessman was accused of kidnapping, robbing, and raping both Johnson and Meza, he was sentenced to death.

At the time of Chessman’s conviction, four other offenses besides first degree murder could result in a defendant being sentenced to death: (1) trainwrecking resulting in death; (2) treason against the state; (3) kidnapping combined with robbery and bodily harm (section 209); and (4) perjury resulting in the execution of an innocent person.

Acting as his own attorney, Chessman vigorously asserted his innocence from the outset, arguing throughout the trial and the appeals process that he was alternately the victim of mistaken identity, or a much larger conspiracy seeking to frame him for a crime he did not commit. He claimed at other times to know who the real culprit was, but refused to name him. He further alleged that statements he made during his initial police interrogation implicating him in the Red Light Bandit crimes were coerced through beatings and torture.

While on death row, Chessman argued his case to the public through letters, essays and books. Chessman wrote four books: Cell 2455, Death Row (1954), Trial by Ordeal (1955), The Face of Justice (1957) and The Kid Was a Killer (1960). He sold the rights to his autobiography, Cell 2455, Death Row to Columbia Pictures, which was made into a 1955 film of the same name, directed by Fred F. Sears, with William Campbell as Chessman. Chessman’s middle name, Whittier, was used as the surname of his alter ego protagonist in the film. The manuscript of Chessman’s novel The Kid Was a Killer was seized by San Quentin warden Harley O. Teets in 1954 on the grounds that it was “prison labor”. It was eventually returned to Chessman in late 1957 and published in 1960.

His memoirs became bestsellers and ignited a worldwide movement to spare his life, while focusing attention on the politics of the death penalty in the United States at a time when most Western countries had already abandoned it, or were in the process of doing so. The office of California Governor Pat Brown was flooded with appeals for clemency from noted authors and intellectuals from around the world, including Aldous Huxley, Ray Bradbury, Norman Mailer, Dwight MacDonald, and Robert Frost, and from such other public figures as former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Christian evangelist Billy Graham.

Over the course of the twelve years he spent on death row, Chessman filed dozens of appeals and successfully avoided eight execution deadlines, often by a few hours. He appealed his conviction primarily on the grounds that the original trial was improperly conducted and that subsequent appeals were seriously hampered by incomplete and incorrect transcripts of the original trial proceedings. The appeals were successful and the U.S. Supreme Court finally ordered the State of California to either conduct a full review of the transcripts or release Chessman. The review concluded that the transcripts were substantially accurate and Chessman was scheduled to die in February 1960.

The Chessman affair put Governor Brown, an opponent of the death penalty, in a difficult situation. Brown initially did not intervene in the case, but then issued a last-minute, 60-day stay of execution on February 19, 1960, just hours before Chessman’s scheduled execution. Brown said he issued the stay out of concern that Chessman’s execution could threaten the safety of President Dwight D. Eisenhower during a planned visit to South America, where the Chessman case had inflamed anti-American sentiment.

Brown’s stay of execution, along with Chessman’s last appeals, ran out in April 1960. Governor Brown was unable to grant Chessman executive clemency as The California Constitution requires the commutation of a two-time felon’s death sentence to be ratified by the California Supreme Court (In Chessman’s case, the court had voted no, 4-3). Exhausting a last-minute attempt to file a writ of habeas corpus with the California Supreme Court, Chessman finally went to the gas chamber at San Quentin Prison on May 2, 1960.

Shortly after the execution had started and Chessman was already reacting to the hydrogen cyanide gas, the telephone rang. The caller was a judge’s secretary informing the warden of a new stay of execution. The warden responded, “It’s too late; the execution has begun.” As the process had already started, it was impossible to stop the fumes or open the chamber door and remove Chessman without the fumes killing others. Due to her nervousness, the secretary had initially dialed the wrong telephone number and lost valuable seconds in getting the call through. The day after his execution, as per his wishes, Chessman’s body was cremated at the Mount Tamalpais Mortuary and Cemetery in San Rafael, California. He requested that his ashes be interred with his parents’ at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale. Forest Lawn refused to comply with Chessman’s request on “moral grounds”. His ashes were eventually buried at the Mount Tamalpais Cemetery. In February 1974, Chessman’s attorney Rosalie Asher had his ashes disinterred and scattered them off the coast of Santa Cruz Island.

Chessman’s time on death row — eleven years and ten months — was then the longest ever in the United States, a record that would be broken in the post-Furman v. Georgia era on March 15, 1988, when Willie Darden, Jr. was executed in Florida’s electric chair. Several months later, on November 21, 1961, Billy Monk was executed for kidnapping two women, attempting to rape the first and raping the second, and was the last to be executed for a non-lethal kidnapping in the United States.

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  • May, 27, 1921
  • USA
  • St. Joseph, Michigan


  • May, 02, 1960
  • USA
  • San Quentin, California

Cause of Death

  • Execution by gas chamber.


  • Cremated. Ashes scattered by airplane off Santa Cruz, California.

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