1960: Caryl Chessman

8 comments May 2nd, 2010 Headsman

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This astonishingly expansive reading only became more controversial when California repealed the kidnapping law in question in the 1950s.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.


Via.

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.

-Caryl Chessman

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.

But “public opinion mobilized against Chessman,” writes Theodore Hamm in Rebel and a Cause: Caryl Chessman and the Politics of the Death Penalty in Postwar California, 1948-1974. That mobilization “marked the beginning of a larger popular backlash by the New Right against an essentially technocratic campaign to eliminate capital punishment in California.”

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.

Too late.

Which didn’t mean that Chessman was already dead — not by a long shot.

A reporter described what was transpiring inside the state’s killing chamber while Law and Ma Bell transacted their tardy business outside.

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.

-Caryl Chessman

* 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.

A cache of primary records from the case and its many appeals is lodged at this FBI Freedom of Information Act page.

† 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.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Artists,California,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Gassed,History,Kidnapping,Notable Jurisprudence,Popular Culture,Rape,Reprieved Too Late,Theft,USA,Wrongful Executions

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1945: Private Eddie Slovik, the last American shot for desertion

72 comments January 31st, 2009 dogboy

On January 31, 1945, Private Edward Donald “Eddie” Slovik became a curious outlier of World War II: he was executed by firing squad by the U.S. Army for desertion. He is the only person to have been so punished for that crime since the Civil War.

Pvt Slovik was, by all accounts, quiet and helpful, by no means a coward, and more than willing to aid in the effort of World War II, traits which would have put him among a large class of that war’s veterans. Unfortunately, he was also immobilized by shelling. Equally unfortunately, he knew it, and he decided to do something about it.

Slovik and a friend, Pvt John F. Tankey, first separated from their detachment under artillery fire in late August 1944, shortly after being shipped to France. The pair hooked up with a Canadian unit and spent six weeks pitching in. Having recused themselves from the hard shelling others were experiencing on the front line, they opted to rejoin their regular U.S. unit: Slovik and Tankey sent a letter to their commanding officer explaining their absence and returned on Oct. 7.

But the front lines were not a place for Pvt Slovik.

After his assignment to the rifle unit, which would face imminent danger during shelling, Slovik asked to be placed in the rear guard, indicating he was too scared to remain in front. His request was refused. He then reportedly asked whether leaving the unit again would be considered desertion, was told it would be, and opted for the seemingly safer route of, well, deserting. One day later, Slovik was back at a U.S. camp, this time turning himself in to the camp cook. He had drafted a letter explaining his actions and indicating that he knowingly deserted, permanently recording his guilt on paper.

It’s not clear whether Pvt Slovik was acting on principles or out of an understanding of the U.S. military judicial system. He was by no means the only soldier without affinity for the conditions of war, particularly on the allied side. During the war, thousands of soldiers were tried and convicted in military courts for desertion, but up to then, all had received only time in the brig. What is clear is that Slovik was repeatedly offered opportunities to return to the line, and he equally repeatedly refused.

The case was adjudicated on Nov 11 by nine staff officers of the 28th Division, none of whom had yet been in battle. One of those judges, Benedict B. Kimmelman, wrote a stark and intriguing account of his role in the story of Pvt Slovik, capturing the scene thusly:

Five witnesses were heard. The cross-examinations were perfunctory. The defense made no closing argument. The court recessed for ten minutes, resumed, and retired almost immediately afterward. Three ballots were taken in closed court, the verdicts unanimously guilty on all counts. In open court once more, the president announced the verdict and the sentence: to be dishonorably discharged, to forfeit all pay and allowances due, and to be shot to death with musketry. The trial had begun at 10:00 A.M.; it was over at 11:40 A.M.

As with all court martial cases, Slovik’s was sent to a judge advocate for review. His criminal record, including everything from destruction of property to public intoxication to embezzlement, did not endear him to the reviewer. More importantly, though, the advocate felt Slovik could be made an example:

He has directly challenged the authority of the government, and future discipline depends upon a resolute reply to this challenge. If the death penalty is ever to be imposed for desertion, it should be imposed in this case, not as a punitive measure nor as retribution, but to maintain that discipline upon which alone an army can succeed against the enemy.

Strangely, Pvt Slovik was the only person who would be exemplified this way.

Though the military tried 21,000 desertion cases and passed down 49 death sentences for desertion during the war, it carried out only Slovik’s. And in the war’s final battles, with Germany collapsing, his execution seemed like a surreal throwback. As Kimmelman notes, hundreds if not thousands of soldiers were strictly guilty of dereliction of duty and desertion in the waning days of 1944.

They’re not shooting me for deserting the United Stated Army — thousands of guys have done that. They’re shooting me for bread I stole when I was 12 years old. (Source)

Three weeks after his conviction and three weeks before the Battle of the Bulge, Slovik’s execution order was confirmed by the 28th Division’s commander, Major General Norman “Dutch” Cota. Cota was disturbed by Slovik’s forthrightness in confessing to the desertion, and, as a front line commander who had sustained severe casualty rates in the Battle of Hurtgen Forest, had no sympathy for the crime.

After an appeal to the deaf ears of Dwight Eisenhower shortly before the sentence was to be carried out, Slovik was out of options. He was taken to the courtyard of an estate near the village of Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines and shot by 11 Army marksmen* at 10 a.m. By 10:04, as they were reloading, he was declared dead. His body was interred at a French cemetery, and after decades of lobbying the U.S. government, his remains were returned to Michigan in 1987.

Because he was dishonorably discharged, Slovik was not entitled to a pension, and his wife, Antoinette, stopped receiving payments. Curiously, though the Army managed to communicate this to her, they omitted the bit about the execution. She found out in 1953 from William Bradford Huie.

Huie was a journalist who took immediate interest in Slovik’s story, popularizing it with his book The Execution of Private Slovik, which was released in 1954. Twenty years later, the book and title were requisitioned for a well-received TV movie starring Martin Sheen and funded by Frank Sinatra.

* The firing squad included 12 marksmen, but one was given a blank. Despite their skill, the 11 remaining shooters did not manage to kill him instantaneously.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Desertion,Diminished Capacity,Execution,France,Guest Writers,History,Milestones,Military Crimes,Other Voices,Shot,Soldiers,U.S. Military,USA,Wartime Executions

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