Caryl Chessman - 2

By Christopher Zoukis  Image courtesy

His name was Caryl Whittier Chessman.  Born May 27, 1921 in St. Joseph, Michigan, he died May 2, 1960 at San Quentin Prison, San Quentin, California.  He was executed by the order of the State of California.

His life, though simple in one respect, that he spent most of it in one prison or another, was enormously complicated in many other respects.

The beginning of the end began in 1948.  Caryl had just been paroled from prison when the police arrested him in Los Angeles.  Supposedly, he was the “Red Light Bandit.”  This person nicknamed the Red Light Bandit, whoever he was, used a red flashing light on his car to impersonate a police car.  He would come up behind cars and turn on the red light.  Once the cars stopped, he would rob the drivers and passengers or, if they were young and female, rape them.

A red light was found in Chessman’s car.  He was charged with multiple counts of robbery, assault, rape and kidnapping.  Chessman elected to act as his own attorney.  And although intelligent and educated, this was probably a mistake.  A competent criminal defense attorney could have negotiated a plea bargain.

Chessman, however, maintained his innocence.  His self-defense was based on two connected theories:  mistaken identity and the presumption that he was being framed.  He also claimed that the police tortured him while they interrogated him, thus his statements were made under duress.

Chessman had no evidence to support any of his theories or allegations.  On the other hand, since forensic science had yet to be invented, the prosecution had only two pieces of evidence:  the red light discovered in Chessman’s car, and his prior criminal record, which did include robbery, but not rape.  The police merely assumed he had jumped up a level and had added rape to his repertoire.  The red light was circumstantial, but in the end all evidence is circumstantial, and the question to be answered was this:  what circumstances put the red light in his car?  Chessman’s prior record was inconclusive but damning.  He did have a propensity for crime.  

The jury found him guilty and he was sentenced to death.  Transferred to San Quentin’s famous death row, for the next twelve years Chessman filed appeals.  Eight times his execution was stayed.

To the very end, Chessman declared his innocence.  He suggested he knew who the real “Red Light Bandit” was, but he refused to divulge the information to protect his young daughter from reprisals.  And he did have a daughter.