Best Known For
Caryl Chessman is best known for his controversial conviction for sex crimes and his execution in 1960.
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Chessman was convicted as the 'Red Light Bandit' for the kidnap and rape of one Mary Alice Meza.
During his twelve years on Death Row, Chessman became a cause celebre. His case won media exposure as he presented himself not only as an innocent man but also as one rehabilitated from his prior life of crime. His case attracted interest and support among leading criminologists, liberal intellectuals, and ordinary citizens, many of whom engaged in protests to halt Chessman's execution.
All it needed was a direct call to the chamber to stop the execution. Whether it was planned or a genuine case of bad luck, the secretary who was to make the call, misdialed.
Among the many notables who supported Chessman's fight against execution were former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, writers Aldous Huxley, Ray Bradbury, William Inge, Norman Mailer, Dwight MacDonald, Christopher Isherwood, Carey McWilliams and Evangelist preacher Billy Graham.
Wenzell Brown, Chairman of the American Writers Committee wrote:
"Chessman is guilty of other crimes, to wit, robbing bordellos and gambling dens operating in California. However, justice cannot be served by convicting a man of one crime because he committed another."
Chessman's own talent for writing convinced many that a prisoner, even one guilty of murder, could make a great contribution to society and its understanding of the criminal mind. Cell 2455 Death Row (1954), Chessman's first book was an autobiographical account of his own life in prison. By producing this work Chessman demonstrated to his supporters and critics that he was a talented intellectual and the kind of prisoner who exemplified the notion of the rehabilitative ideal.
Over the years more books followed such as Trial by Ordeal and The Kid Was A Killer. But it was in his last book The Face of Justice, completed in secret and just hours before his death, that he commented on why he was likely to go to the gas chamber. He wrote that to the authorities he represented:
"a justice-mocking, lawless legal Houdini and agent provocateur assigned by the Devil (or was it the Communists?) to foment mistrust of lawfully constituted Authority."
In Justice Chessman wrote about the conditions of the penal system of the time. The book was well received and revealed that he was a great thinker and writer. Actually writing the book in prison was an achievement in itself due to the fact that Chessman's cell was constantly checked. In order to hide his daily prose he would transcribe his long drafts into shorthand and dispose of the original draft down the toilet. The shorthand pieces were then camouflaged with legal notions so that the wardens dismissed them.
All four of Chessman's books are now out of print, and the unpublished writings that were known to exist at the time of his death have never seen the light of day.
But at the time Chessman's lawyer, George T. Davis, believed that the media exposure of the case had brought the issue of capital punishment to the forefront of American politics.
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