Sunday, July 11, 2010

Why the death penalty should be abolished - revisiting the Chessman case

Category: Issue 19

                                                  by Burton H. Wolfe*

    May 2nd of this year marked the fiftieth anniversary of the execution of Caryl Chessman, the man who began the lengthy appeals of death sentences and stays on Death Row, and who caused many men and women previously for or ambivalent about capital punishment to become ardent opponents: e.g., Marlon Brando, who was among the throng gathered before the gates of San Quentin Prison on the night of May 1, 1960, to form a vigil and ultimately futile protest against the execution of the alleged “Red Light Bandit” that occurred the next morning.
  (“Red Light Bandit” was the name applied to whoever it was that equipped his automobile with a red light, pretended to be a police officer, accosted couples on a so-called “Lovers’ Lane” in Los Angeles, robbed them of a small amount of money, and forced the women to move into his car, where he used them for sex less than coitus.)
  The execution of Chessman remains today one of the most monstrous injustices in the history of American jurisprudence, and People v. Chessman remains the most inaccurately reported case in the history of the mass communications media. Even today, in articles and books, writers continue to misunderstand what the hullabaloo over Chessman was all about and what caused mass protests not only in the U.S., but also in a number of other countries. There is only one thorough and completely accurate source for reference: a 29-page chapter in my book Pileup on Death Row (Doubleday, 1973).
  During the first half of his eleven and a half year incarceration on Death Row at San Quentin Prison, Chessman was identified daily in the media, and eventually millions of times, as “rapist-killer Caryl Chessman.” But, in fact, he was not indicted for, convicted of, or sentenced to death for the crimes of rape and murder.
  After the media was finally but reluctantly persuaded to stop identifying Chessman in that manner, the epithet in front of his name, repeated over the next six years millions of times in the mass media, became the ungrammatical “kidnap-rapist.” If a newspaper reporter forgot to put that epithet in front of Chessman’s name, an editor would supply it. In the massive research I did to produce my Chessman chapter, not once did I find a journalist who explained that “kidnap” did not refer to the usual meaning of kidnaper: one who seizes and spirits a person away and holds that person captive for ransom. Much less was there an explanation that the “sex crimes” purportedly committed by Chessman amounted to less than rape.
  “Kidnap-rapist Caryl Chessman” was convicted, on the basis of unbelievable “evidence” and “testimony,” pursuant to California’s “Little Lindbergh Law” of 1933, a 147-word atrocity strung out in one sentence which read as though written by a lunatic. Hardly anyone could understand it. Judges who dealt with it certainly did not understand it enough to state accurately what it meant, as demonstrated in their muddled written opinions. In order to provide an explanation of what the one-sentence law meant - taking it from subject to predicate, with all of the which-what-wherefore modifiers, etc. -  I had to break down the sentence in a four-text page appendix. Once that is done, you wind up with this summation: Anyone who carries away an individual with intent to hold or detain that individual for the purpose of robbery is guilty of a felony and upon conviction for it shall suffer death if the person subjected to such kidnaping suffers bodily harm.
  Sounds crazy, does it not? Of course it does. The nitwit who tried to get the whole statute into one sentence, instead of breaking it down into a number of sentences, wound up defining robbery as “such kidnaping.” The statute was so persistently ridiculed that the California State Legislature amended it in 1951 to reduce the severity of punishment for everyone convicted under the law except Chessman. The others were serving sentences of life without possibility of parole; Chessman was the only prisoner who had been sentenced to death pursuant to the statute. The amendment scrapped “without possibility of parole” on behalf of all the others. But no relief was afforded for Chessman.
  Why was there no reduction of the severity of punishment for Chessman? Because, after the numerous stays of execution caused by his brilliant appeals - one of them written by Chessman on a roll of toilet paper and smuggled out of the prison during a period when he was forbidden to write and send out anything more - the media was screaming for the execution of this man identified in report after report as a rapist and kidnaper who was already fixed in the collective public mind as also a “killer.” Over and over again the editorial writers referred to Chessman as an “evil genius” who was cheating society out of its prescribed punishment.
  California Governor Edmund G. (Pat) Brown was provided by advisers with a different characterization of Chessman. He was informed that there had been four acts committed by the “Red Light Bandit” which resulted in Chessman’s being sentenced to death as purportedly the responsible party. First, he held up a man and a woman. Second, after that was completed, he moved the woman 22 feet from her companion’s car to the red light-equipped car he used as a fake police vehicle, forced her to commit a sex act less than coitus, then released her. Third, he tried to rob but did not succeed in robbing a young man, because the young man had no money. Fourth, after the attempted robbery was over, he moved the man’s female companion from his car into the red light-equipped car, drove her several miles away, forced her into sex acts less than coitus, then released her.
  Though he then understood what was wrong with the way that the Little Lindbergh Law had been applied to the “Red Light Bandit” acts, Brown, confronted with the nationwide equivalent of a lynch mob, declined to commute Chessman’s sentence for fear that if he did so it would destroy his political career.
  In charging Chessman pursuant to the Little Lindbergh Law, the prosecutor characterized each one of the four acts as kidnaping for the purpose of robbery, and the jury convicted on the basis of that description. But the “Red Light Bandit” did not “carry away” the two women and detain them for the purpose of robbery. He “carried them away” and detained them a short time for the purpose of sex, and that set of circumstances was not described in the Little Lindbergh Law.  Consequently,  Chessman was not even eligible for conviction of a crime pursuant to the Little Lindbergh Law, much less a death sentence. He was only eligible for a sentence to prison, probably for around 15 years, under the provisions of other laws.
  Finally, it was up to the California Supreme Court, on review of what had either been unexplained or misunderstood before, to determine whether or not Chessman was properly convicted pursuant to the language of the Little Lindbergh Law. In order to uphold the death penalty imposed on Chessman, the Court majority held: “We cannot say as a matter of law that at some point during the abductions of his female victims defendant ceased to be a robber and became a kidnaper whose sole purpose was to inflict bodily harm by forcibly committing sex crimes.” In that weird way of describing purpose, the California Supreme Court wound up construing the entire set of acts attributed to Chessman as kidnaping for the purpose of robbery with resultant bodily harm. Thus did the Court send Chessman on his way to the gas chamber.
  But the fact was that Chessman did not move or detain anyone for the purpose of robbery with resultant bodily harm. Though it could be said that he detained somebody in order to rob that person, that makes no difference because he did not “carry away” the robbery victims before detaining them, and that was the sequence required for conviction under the law. Moreover, no bodily harm occurred during the course of the completed and attempted robberies, and the “bodily harm” that occurred as the result of the sex acts consisted of a few bruises on the women. But the Democratic Party-dominated California Supreme Court’s deliberate misinterpretation of the acts and law at issue, undoubtedly rendered to save Pat Brown’s political career, became the way in which this deadly farce was concluded after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the California Supreme Court’s charlatanical opinion. And so it was that Chessman was put to death in the gas chamber at San Quentin Prison for crimes that either he did not commit or, if he did, then for acts not applicable to the law under which he was convicted and sentenced.
  There is a lot more for necessary analysis than what I have provided here, but it will suffice, especially given the lack of credible evidence and testimony that existed in the first place. For more you have to get Pileup on Death Row from a library, a used book store, or Amazon.com (which had a few copies last time I looked). You should also read Chessman’s masterful book Cell 2455, Death Row.
    My conclusion from the Chessman case was this: If someone can be executed as the result of hysteria created by mass media misidentification of crimes committed, followed by a court opinion that any rational human being must view as quackery rather than as a valid rendering of fact and law, then the death penalty must be removed from the forms of punishment promotable by the media and available to the courts.
*Burton H. Wolfe is the author of such subject-definitive books as The Hippies (New American Library), Hitler and the Nazis, and The Christianity Racket (World Audience Publishers). From the web site for Mind Opening Books - http://mindopeningbooks.com - Wolfe sells unusual e-books. This article on the Chessman case originally appeared in Wolfe’s online journal, Wolfe’s Lair. Contact for Wolfe: bhwolfe(at)msn.com.

Posted by BurtonHWolfe on 07/11 at 09:49 PM | Permalink
(2) Discuss • (0) Comments

« Why is it so taxing?      Wither Not My Rose »