Best Known For
Caryl Chessman is best known for his controversial conviction for sex crimes and his execution in 1960.
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Despite Chessman's protestations of his innocence, his own memoirs, somewhat ironically testified to his criminal personality. It was clear from a young age he seemed to be on a collision course with prison.
Davis himself, although declaring a fondness for Chessman,
also admitted that his client was hard-headed and unyielding. Unfortunately for Chessman this attitude was often interpreted as arrogance and he was depicted by the media as a 'monster' or 'psychopathic wild beast'.
If anything, Chessman was more likely to be an intelligent sociopath who had difficulty feeling empathy for others. Whatever the view of him, he had become an embarrassment to the authorities and for some, in an ultraconservative era, had undermined the judicial system.
Davis himself is not entirely sure why the authorities decided to carry out the death sentence after eight stays of execution over twelve years. He concedes that Chessman's languishing on Death Row, gaining celebrity status and media exposure, was a source of embarrassment to the government.
"The state of California's attitude then is like President Bush's now," said the 94-year-old Davis forty-one years later. "That is, 'well, he got his trial, so let's carry out the sentence'. No-matter what. Expediency is all they were interested in."
Chessman had to deal with the psychological impact of preparing himself for death on eight separate occasions. He would take the 'dead man's walk' to the gas chamber that was housed just below his cell block. Then at the eleventh-hour a stay of execution would be approved and Chessman would take the elevator back up to his cell. It is difficult to think of many people being able to survive such a continuous ordeal without breaking down.
However, on May 2, 1960, time finally ran out for Chessman. At 10 a.m., Chessman's execution was given the go ahead. Davis had anticipated that the petition for leniency would be rejected and had arranged for a cab to take him to the US District Court by 9 a.m. This was the cliff-hanger of all cliff-hangers for at precisely 10 a.m. the cyanide pellets were to be dropped into the gas chamber.
What followed was the kind of nail biting scene expected in a Hitchcock thriller as Davis had to rush over to the district court several blocks away and re-present his petition after the State Supreme Court had rejected it by 4 to 3.
With astute foresight, Davis had sent the 15-page document to the judge the day before. Unfortunately the judge had still not read it.
Standing in the courtroom, with one eye on the clock and the other watching him carefully leaf through the thick manuscript, the opportunity to save Chessman's life was hanging on a thread. With only one minute before the cyanide pellet were to be dropped, the Judge finally agreed to a stay of execution.
All it needed was a direct call to the chamber phone to stop the execution. Whether it was a planned operation by the State or a genuine case of bad luck and bad timing, the secretary who was to make the call, misdialed.
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