1990: Sam Cayhall in Grisham’s “The Chamber”

In John Grisham’s The Chamber, it is on August 8, 1990 that the titular enclosure receives its victim in a cloud of lethal gas.

In The Chamber, Sam Cayhall, a Ku Klux Klansman who had long avoided conviction for bombing a Jewish civil rights lawyer in 1967, has at last been condemned in Mississippi twenty years later.

The action centers around the futile and increasingly hopeless efforts of Cayhall’s grandson Adam Hall to save the old man working pro bono for a Chicago law firm.

Adam comes to learn that his grandfather has a long and bloody Klan history, even killing children. (We also find that the missing link in this generational drama, Adam’s father, committed suicide after Sam was sent to death row.)

But Sam is in no way a good guy: still an unreconstructed racist, he refuses to inform on any ex-confederates. As grandpa wends his way towards his date with the executioner, Adam’s torrent of judicial appeals go nowhere and the politically sensitive nature of the case makes executive clemency a non-starter. (When The Chamber was published in 1994, the death penalty was at an acme of popularity.) This is to be expected, of course; as Chekhov might observe, you can’t call the book The Chamber if someone isn’t going to go sit in said chamber by the end.

This bestseller was made into a 1996 film starring Gene Hackman as the grizzled Klansman. (In the film version’s execution scene, the date is changed to April 13, 1996.)

There’s an excerpt of the novel available on Grisham’s site here.

On this day..

3 thoughts on “1990: Sam Cayhall in Grisham’s “The Chamber”

  1. If legal precedent were to have been considered accurately in “The Chamber”, Sam Cayhall would not have been executed for the bombing murders. The crimes, which occurred in 1967, were punishable by the laws in effect at that time. The 1972 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in _Furman vs Georgia_ rendered all existing state death penalty statutes unconstitutional. Mississippi, like many other states, did reinstate their death penalty laws after reworking them to confirm with the guidance in _Furman_. However, these new laws could not have been applied to crimes which took place prior to this revision. Cayhall would not have been eligible for the death sentence under the post _Furman_ statutes. His maximum penalty could have been life imprisonment.

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