Caryl Whittier Chessman was born on May 27
. His birth name, reflective of his Danish
heritage, was Carol
, which was a popular name for Danish boys. He later changed the spelling to Caryl.
He was arrested as a suspect in the "Red Light Bandit" crimes, where the criminal flashed a red light from his car, in a manner similar to the police, and subsequently robbed the victims. Allegedly, he would also sexually assault women on occasion, a charge Chessman vehemently denied until his dying day. Chessman initially confessed to the crimes, then recanted the confession, claiming to have had the confession coerced via police brutality.
He defended himself during the trial, but was not considered very effective in that regard, with his mannerisms alienating the jury. Due to the mounting evidence against him, including eye witness testimony, he was convicted on seventeen counts, ranging from robbery to kidnapping. Since the jury felt that at least one of his victims had suffered bodily harm during the course of the kidnapping, the Charles Lindbergh baby law of 1933 governing such an occurence demanded that he be sentenced either to life without the possibility of parole or death. Death was the sentence.
There was a groundswell of opposition to his sentence, with celebrities of the day, as well as the Pope decrying the punishment. Even neoconservative William F. Buckley, Jr. was moved to defend Chessman. After 8 stays, Chessman was executed by the state of California on May 2, 1960. He had been on death row for longer than any person in American history.
Chessman promised to have evidence of his true innocence released in 2007. Many of his supporters have maintained that, while he was a thief and a sociopath, he was no rapist.
Addendum: I found the following account of Chessman's day of execution:
Adding a macabre twist to his death is a story George Davis tells about getting a stay of execution on May 2, 1960, the day of Chessman's death. Knowing his petition would probably be rejected by the California Supreme Court, Davis arranged for a cab to drive him down the street to the U.S. District Court. He arrived at the former at 9 a.m. and had until 10 a.m. to get the stay at either court, as that was the exact planned time for the cyanide pellets to be dropped into the vat and the vapors to be released into Chessman's lungs.
As Davis expected, the State Supreme Court rejected the petition, 4 to 3. That was at 9:20 a.m. He navigated the six blocks to the district court and presented his petition there. Because the 15-page document was too long to read in the allotted time, Davis had driven out to the judge's house the day before (a Sunday) to personally give him an advance copy. But the federal judge still hadn't read it when Davis arrived at about 9:30 a.m. Davis was desperate.
"The judge took the petition, and he started to read it, page by page," he recalled. "As he started to read it and turn the pages, I kept watching the clock.… I saw that clock going from five minutes to ten, to four minutes to ten, to three minutes, and finally, when it got to just almost exactly one minute to, the judge said, 'All right, I'll grant the stay of execution.'"
But the prison had to be called. The execution had to be stopped. Davis begged the judge to let him dial the direct line on his chamber phone, to save precious seconds. The judge told him that his secretary would dial it for him, to just give her the number.
"I gave the number to the secretary. She walked into an adjoining office just a few feet away, and I thought 'Boy, this is the cliffhanger of all cliffhangers,' because now it's thirty seconds before ten, and she's dialing, but all it needs is to get to the warden. At about five seconds to before ten, the secretary walks out and says, 'Could you give me that number again, Mr. Davis? I must have misdialed it.' I gave her the number again, she dialed it again, she got the warden."
The judge told the warden to grant a stay of execution. The warden said, "I'm sorry, it's too late. The pellets have just been dropped."
The above was found at http://www.gadflyonline.com/10-29-01/ftr-caryl-chessman.html