Caryl Chessman execution brought California worldwide ire

SAN FRANCISCO -- Aaron Mitchell, put to death in the gas chamber 25 years ago, was the last convict executed in California, but it was the 1960 execution of Caryl Chessman that seized the world's attention and roused widespread protests against the death penalty.

Chessman could not be sentenced to die under California's current capital law; he never killed anyone.


Dubbed the 'red light bandit,' Chessman was convicted in Los Angeles of robbing couples on lovers' lanes after flashing a red police- type light at them. He then kidnapped and raped some of the women.

Chessman wrote a critically acclaimed best selling book, 'Cell 2455, Death Row.' The book, coupled with his 11-year court battle, sparked a worldwide anti-capital punishment movement.

Shortly before Chessman's scheduled execution May 2, 1960, a petition from Brazil containing 2 million signatures was sent to Gov. Pat Brown calling for commutation of Chessman's sentence.


Crowds attacked U.S. embassies in Lisbon, Stockholm, Montevideo and other cities in Europe and South America over the Chessman case, Brown wrote in his recent book 'Public Justice, Private Mercy.'

As Chessman's execution date approached, thousands of ordinary citizens and world figures as diverse as humanitarian Dr. Albert Schweitzer and actress Brigitte Bardot deluged the governor with requests to commute the sentence.

Hundreds of protesters, including Marlon Brando and Shirley MacLaine, camped out on the lawn in front of the governor's mansion the night before Chessman's execution, urging a stay.

Chessman went to his death as planned in 1960 and, in a final letter, urged his lawyer, George Davis, to fight on against capital punishment.

Another controversial case was the 1955 execution of Barbara Graham, who some still believe was innocent. She was ordered to die for the beating death of an elderly Burbank woman during a failed robbery.

Graham's life and execution were recreated in the movie, 'I want to Live,' starring Susan Hayward.

The first men executed in California after the state instituted the use of the gas chamber in 1937 were Albert Kessell and Robert Cannon, who died side-by-side on Dec. 2, 1938. Kessell and Cannon had killed the warden of Folsom Prison.


They were the first of 194 men and four women executed in San Quentin's gas chamber.

In all, the state of California has executed 501 men and women since 1893. Before that time, executions were conducted by individual counties and accurate records were not kept, according to Gerald Uelmen, dean of Santa Clara University Law School.

Perhaps the most notorious case of a man spared from execution by public outcry rather than the legal system was that of San Francisco labor leader Tom Mooney.

Mooney was sentenced to die after being framed, along with Warren Billings, for the 1916 Preparedness Day bombing in San Francisco.

Ten people died in the bombing. While facing death, Mooney and Billings became symbols of government persecution against labor leaders.

Within months of the death sentence, it was learned that prosecutors suppressed evidence that could have cleared Mooney and witnesses were pressured to lie.

But California law at the time prevented introduction of new evidence more than 10 days after the end of a trial.

Mass rallys were held all over Europe, with marchers demanding freedom for Mooney. World War I had begun and President Woodrow Wilson, under pressure from Russia and other European allies, made three personal appeals to Gov. William D. Stephens to commute Mooney's sentence.


Stephens, a Republican, reluctantly agreed to commute the sentence.

But it was not until organized labor power was at its peak 22 years later that Mooney, on Jan. 8, 1939, was granted a full pardon in one of the first acts by Gov. Culbert Olson, who was elected on a campaign that he would free Mooney.

Billings, who had been sentenced to a life term, was freed in 1961 after 43 years in prison.

Chessman's execution came at a time when national support for capital punishment was dwindling.

Nine states abolished existing death laws during the 1960s and others eliminated them earlier.

California prison officials dragged Aaron Mitchell to the death chamber screaming, 'I am Jesus,' in April 1967. He was the last man executed in the state.

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