Thursday, 7 November 2013

Caryl Chessman - The Red Light Bandit

This case from the late 1940`s was a worldwide "Cause Celebre" in which a habitual criminal named Caryl Chessman was sentenced to death, not for murder but for kidnapping.  The ruckus blew up through the application of a law drafted in California after the kidnapping and murder of the baby of aviation hero, Charles Lindbergh.  Chessman allegedly "kidnapped" two women victims; he dragged them to his car to force them to perform oral sex n him.  This forcible removal of them from their cars, constituted "kidnapping".  So what are the facts?

    Caryl Wittier Chessman was born in St Joseph in Michigan on 27th May 1921, and spent most of his adult life in prison.  He had not long released from a California jail, when he was arrested in Los Angeles, and charged with being "The Red Light Bandit", in which a car would follow  another car, start flashing a red light as if it was a Police car, pull over the car, and rob the occupants. On two occasions, one young girl, 17 year old Mary Alice Meza, was dragged from her car, to the other and forced to perform oral sex on the bandit.  It has been said that the ordeal left her with mental trauma for the rest of her life, she passing away in 2010.  Another woman, Regina Johnson aged 22, was dragged from her car to the bandit`s.

    In July 1948, Chessman faced 17 charges of robbery, rape and kidnapping.  Against strong advice, Chessman elected to defend himself, a decision that may have alienated the jury, along with numerous claims he made;  He was the victim of mistaken identification, he was being framed by cops, he knew who the real bandit was but would not name him, and that his confession had been beaten out of him.  The jury, however, did not buy any of it and convicted him.  He was sentenced to death.  He lasted twelve years on Death Row, the longest ever, back then, and had eight stays of execution.  He wrote four books whilst incarcerated, 3 non-fiction(about his case) and one fiction.  His time ran out on May 2nd 1960, with his execution in the Gas Chamber.  He was being gassed when a call came through granting another stay.  The Warden responded with "The pills have just been dropped" - the cyanide pills had been dropped into the solution that produces lethal gas.

    Chessman wrote Cell 2455 Death Row, Trial by Ordeal, The Face of Justice, and fictional The Kid Was A Killer.  Many believed he was innocent of the crimes, saying that they became convinced after face to face meetings.  But habitual criminals are pathological liars, and  many can bullshit until the cows come home.  As for being framed and beaten, that is very believable, as the LA cops were not all saints.  But as for mistaken identification, to me that does not stand up.  Why?  Simple.  Chessman was ugly and had a distinctive nose, and it would have been a problem to get a number of like people to stand in an ID parade.  If the two victims were adamant in picking Chessman, and not prompted by cops, then the case is clear cut.  He was guilty but the real bone of contention was the punishment.  Judging by some research I did, it appears that the arguments were about the sentence and not about guilt or innocence.   Everybody will have an opinion.  I would be happy to hear yours.