On this date in 1967, Aaron Mitchell was gassed in California on the authority of a governor holding his first elected office — Ronald Reagan, future U.S. president and emerging avatar of conservative white ressentiment in the turbulent 1960s.
It was only 23 days after California’s last previous execution, in January 1963, that Mitchell killed a white cop during a shootout occasioned by his abortive bar robbery. He’d been on death row fighting execution ever since, with a few dozen others who had been there even longer.
That gummed-up death penalty process, for which the Golden State is so well-known today, was most vividly symbolized at the time by the 12-year death row odyssey of Caryl Chessman.
And it had been among the many grievances catalyzing a conservative backlash against the civil rights movement, the Great Society, anti-war protesters, permissive social mores … the whole aspect of Sixties counterculture and American liberalism.
Ronald Reagan was born to wield the sword against it all. The sword, or some little cyanide pellets.
Reagan, a film actor, had cut his political teeth as a spokesman for General Electric and against commie plots like Medicare.
After famously backing the failed 1964 presidential bid of Barry Goldwater, Reagan emerged as the favored son of the New Right, and in his first foray into electoral politics, steamrolled over incumbent Democrat Edmund Brown in California’s 1966 gubernatorial election.
Reagan had an undoubted gift for packaging the sometimes unpalatable ennui of his potential constituencies into soundbites that respectable people could repeat in public, which talent proved essential to his bright political future.
“Why is it,” he demanded during the campaign, “that no street in our city is safe for women after dark?” (Los Angeles Times, September 21, 1966) Stung by Republican attacks on rising crime rates, Gov. Brown had vainly pushed a tough-on-crime platform of his own in 1966.
Too little. Too late.
“Mr. Reagan is outspokenly in favor of capital punishment and he has just been elected by a tremendous majority,” said Jesse James Gilbert, 41, who has languished on Death Row for two years.* “If the courts begin to reflect his thinking, he will be in a position to become the greatest butcher governor in history.”
-Los Angeles Times, Dec. 4, 1966
What a different world it was from today’s that a major paper unabashedly used a death row prisoner’s own voice for analytical comment. Still, that same article noted (not in Gilbert’s voice, but as a plain fact on the ground) that “even a single execution could endanger Reagan’s chances for reelection or stifle voices which are beginning to urge him to seek the Republican Presidential nomination in 1968 or 1972.” A different world indeed.
Reagan had outspokenly run on capital punishment, however, and there’s such a thing as feeding your base. He surely was not going to execute nobody.
Mitchell was the man in line, and he certainly fit that not-safe-to-walk-the-streets-at-night angle, if you catch the drift. In an Ebony (June 1967) profile of his last days, Mitchell emerges at once radicalized and resigned, his four years awaiting death spent “researching and studying the race problem.”
“Every negro ever convicted of killing a police officer has died in that gas chamber,” Mitchell said on the day of his death. “So what chance did I have?”**
When the aide in charge of the clemency application is overtly pro-Scrooge future Attorney General Edwin Meese … not much chance, no.
So on this date, and in spite of an energetic protest outside San Quentin, a suicide attempt inside it, an open line to the governor’s office just in case, and a hysterical mother (who fled Mitchell’s clemency session in tears two days before, complaining that it was “a sham hearing”), Mitchell became the 501st person put to death since the state moved all executions from county auspices into state prisons.†
The 502nd would not take place until another quarter-century had elapsed.
Cold comfort to Mitchell, but Reagan himself did not vindicate Jesse Gilbert’s worst fears, and did not present the execution rubber-stamp of a later political generation; for his time and place, being visibly willing to approve some executions amply proved his credentials. (Newsweek called the governor a “man of conviction” after the Mitchell execution. (Source) Mission accomplished.)
Reagan would stay the next death date on his watch, that of Daniel Allen Roberts, over questions of mental competency; later in 1967, he would do the same for Robert Lee Massie just hours ahead of execution so that Massie could testify in another trial, inadvertently providing a bullet point in the conservative critique of death penalty squeamishness.
And in the event, the Great Communicator would be spared any great need to answer for a significant slate of individual clemency decisions. It was judicial activity far more than executive reticence that stayed the hand of California’s executioner; only one more execution after Mitchell’s took place in all of the U.S. before the country slipped into a complete death penalty moratorium from which it would not emerge for another decade.
And when the Reagan-appointed California Chief Justice Donald Wright authored a 1972 opinion striking down that state’s death penalty laws, it emptied death row outright.‡ (Sparing, among over 100 others, Charles Manson and Sirhan Sirhan.)
Capital punishment is impermissibly cruel. It degrades and dehumanizes all who participate in its processes. It is unnecessary to any legitimate goal of the state and is incompatible with the dignity of man and the judicial process. Our conclusion that the death penalty may no longer be exacted in California consistently with article I, section 6, of our Constitution is not grounded in sympathy for those who would commit crimes of violence, but in concern for the society that diminishes itself whenever it takes the life of one of its members. Lord Chancellor Gardiner reminded the House of Lords, debating abolition of capital punishment in England: “When we abolished the punishment for treason that you should be hanged, and then cut down while still alive, and then disembowelled while still alive, and then quartered, we did not abolish that punishment because we sympathised with traitors, but because we took the view that it was a punishment no longer consistent with our self respect.”
That would not stand as the final word on capital punishment in California, but by the time other condemned prisoners had come to the end of their appeals, they were the concern of different governors.
Reagan left the California governor’s mansion in 1975 during the death penalty’s long hiatus; as U.S. president from 1981 to 1989, the death penalty was only just coming back online from that period, and that at the state level. Beyond platitudinous approval of the trend, Reagan never had to put his own signature on a federal death warrant.
So as it turned out, Aaron Mitchell was the first, last, and only man so distinguished.
And Reagan’s minuscule career execution count was hardly the anomaly that it might now appear. Prior to Reagan, the last Chief Executive who had actually entered the White House having previously forwarded any fellow to the executioner was … Dwight Eisenhower.
* Gilbert is the appellant in the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court decision Gilbert v. California, reversing his conviction because of a police lineup identification unconstitutionally obtained without his lawyer’s knowledge.
** The cop-killing Mitchell wasn’t getting any love from the beleaguered Brown administration, either; Brown almost had a shot to pull a Ricky Ray Rector with Mitchell during the campaign, but the prisoner won a judicial stay just 24 hours from execution in May 1966.
The now-former governor was quoted after Mitchell’s actual 1967 execution expressing general support for Reagan’s non-clemency in spite of Brown’s own philosophical opposition to capital punishment.
as the gas hit him, his head immediately fell to his chest. Then his head came up and he looked directly into the window. For nearly seven minutes he sat up that way, with his chest heaving, saliva bubbling between his lips. He tucked his thumbs into his fists, and finally his head fell again … I believe he was aware many minutes … He appeared to be in great anguish
On this date fifty years ago, death row author and celebrity Caryl Chessman choked to death in San Quentin Prison’s gas chamber while the phone outside rang, too late, with his stay.
During his abnormally protracted* (for the times) 12 years fighting death, Chessman became the poster child for the anti-capital punishment cause and the most recognizable face on death row.
He was condemned as the “Red Light Bandit,” a Los Angeles criminal who would waylay cars in lovers’ lanes with police-like flashing red lights, then rob and, for some female victims, rape them. A career felon, Chessman denied his guilt to his death (he insisted that his signed confession was beaten out of him by the LAPD, which would not exactly have been out of character).
The prickly Chessman — “not generally regarded as a pleasant or socially minded fellow,” he conceded about himself — unwisely represented himself at trial, where the confession plus eyewitness testimony of Bandit victims were enough to convict him.
Not, however, of murder.
Instead, Chessman drew two death sentences under one of the country’s several draconian “Little Lindbergh” anti-kidnapping statutes, on the intriguing jurisprudential theory that the Red Light Bandit’s having dragged a rape victim several feet from her car constituted “kidnapping.”**
This astonishingly expansive reading only became more controversial when California repealed the kidnapping law in question in the 1950s. But the repeal was not retroactive.
That left Chessman to fight his sentence with a terrifyingly iron willpower, fending off eight execution dates in the process. The last of them came in February 1960, an 11th-hour reprieve as had been several others, when a two-month stay was granted ostensibly to protect the traveling President Eisenhower from some act of vengeful local retaliation from one of Chessman’s legions of international supporters.
A cat, I am told, has nine lives. If that is true, I know how a cat feels when, under the most hair-raising conditions, it has been obliged to expend the first eight of those lives in a chamber-of-horrors battle for survival, and the Grim Reaper gets it into his head that it will be great sport to try to bag the ninth. All pussy can do is spit. Homo sapiens can write books.
So Chessman wrote.
Fiction and nonfiction books, numerous articles — copping to a criminal life but insistently denying his involvement in the crimes that would doom him. For a time, prison officials seized his work and forbade his writing, and Chessman resorted to sacrificing his sleep to write illicitly by night and encode his work in putative “legal documents”. Bandit or not, the man had an indomitable spirit, and it won him worldwide attention and support.
Books by and about Caryl Chessman
And bandit or not, the Grim Reaper had a mind to take that ninth life.
One might have thought that for such a lightning-rod anti-death penalty case, the election of anti-death penalty Gov. Edmund “Pat” Brown in 1958 would spell good news.
According to Hamm, Pat Brown claimed he would have been “impeached” if he had granted clemency to his uppity prisoner, leaving Chessman and his lefty backers† expediently triangulated by a Democratic governor. It’s a timeless story.
With executive clemency off the table, Chessman’s lawyer Rosalie Ashler was scrambling on the morning of the 10 a.m. execution to interest a judge in an appeal claiming that one Charles Terranova was the actual Red Light Bandit. The judge took his time reading the brief, and by the time his secretary placed a call to the death house (legend says, after once misdialing it), the cyanide pellets had already dropped.
I thought Chessman must be dead but no, there was another agonizing period during which he choked on the gas. And again. And then again. There was a long period, another deep gasp. At the fourth such straining, Chessman’s head lolled in a half circle, coming forward so that he faced downward with his chin almost touching his chest. This must be the end. But the dying went on.
A deep gasp, his head came up for an instant, dropped forward again. After two or three deep breaths, which seemed something like sobs, a trembling set up throughout the body. Along the line of his broad shoulders, down the arms to his fingers, I could see the tremor run.
Then I saw his pale face grow suddenly paler, though I had not thought that it could be after his 12 years in prison. A little saliva came from his lips, spotted the white shirt that a condemned man wears for his last appearance. Even more color drained from his face and the furrows in his head smoothed out a little. And I knew he was dead.
Chessman would persist as a cultural touchstone for the issue of capital punishment for a generation.
Jim Minor, “Death Row” (1960)
Ronnie Hawkins, “The Ballad of Caryl Chessman” (1960)
Merle Haggard, “Sing Me Back Home” (1968)
(Though this tune about watching men taken to the gas chamber doesn’t explicitly reference Caryl Chessman, it was inspired by Haggard’s own prison stint where he met Chessman and experienced a “scared straight” moment.)
Neil Diamond, “Done Too Soon” (1970)
The Hates, “Do the Caryl Chessman” (1980)
In view of Chessman’s onetime celebrity, he’s an oddly forgotten character today: too strange an individual for easy approachability; too ethically indeterminate for convenient demagoguery; not sufficiently emblematic of any larger cause or community that would tend to his memory. His non-murder death sentence and method of execution seem anachronistic, no longer relevant.
Chessman surely was an avatar of the end to capital punishment that unfolded in the 1960s and 1970s, but as it went with his own case, so it went with his legacy: the simultaneous right-wing backlash ultimately rewrote the story. After all, the “liberal” governor too chicken to spare Chessman would go on to lose his office to Ronald Reagan.
Our day’s protagonist might have had a different place in the national consciousness, in stories with the phrase “as late as 1960,” had that interregnum of “abolition” Chessman presaged not turned out to be a false start.
I am not guilty. I am sure a future generation will listen.
* While 12 years between sentence and execution wouldn’t raise an eyebrow today (especially in California), Chessman at the time was thought to have set a record for the longest stint on death row in U.S. history.
** The legal weirdness didn’t stop with the kidnapping law. The official court reporter in Chessman’s case actually died with his trial transcription still in semi-legible shorthand. It was partially reconstructed (by a relative of prosecuting attorney J. Miller Leavy, who also won the death sentence against Barbara “I Want to Live!” Graham), but portions that could not be read were ballparked by the recollections of … prosecutor Leavy.
Appeals courts, of course, frequently have recourse to the original trial record to make various legal determinations; the evidentiary gap left by this second-hand-abridged-by-the-DA transcript was frequently protested by Chessman’s camp on appeal.
† They weren’t exclusively leftists. William Buckley and Billy Graham both supported clemency for Chessman. Nor were they all political: the directors of the schlocky cult horror flick The Hypnotic Eye crassly pitched the headline-grabbing condemned con on a hypnotism promotional stunt, and ended up themselves being drawn into the case and believing Chessman was innocent.