2 May 1960 – Caryl Chessman

Caryl ChessmanCloning a police car’s search light was key to Caryl Whittier Chessman’s spate of rape ‘n’ robbery hold-ups. And this earned him the nickname ‘Red Light Bandit’.

But it was his 12-year battle to avoid the death sentence that really gained attention. And his case was to underpin the movement to ban the death penalty.

Night rider

In the style of a latter-day highwayman, Chessman was to target people up and down the roads of California demanding money.

He’d drive up behind his victims with a flashing light going which made it look like a police car. They’d naturally stop and trustingly open their windows only to have the barrel of a shotgun shoved in their faces.

Sex pest

At first Chessman was after valuables, but soon it turned more sinister. He began forcing females out of their cars at gunpoint and extorting sexual favours from them.

He later teamed up with a mate and together they’d carry out the robberies. But they were racking up a raft of witnesses and it was inevitable that finally the law caught up with the duo in 1948.

Sentenced

It took a jury 30 hours to find the pair guilty of their crimes. Chessman’s mate David Knowles got two consecutive life sentences. But with 17 counts of robbery and sexual assaults levelled against Chessman, there was no such lenience. He got life, eight consecutive five-year terms and just to make doubly sure, two death penalties to boot.

This was California’s first death penalty for crimes other than murder. And to give him his dues Chessman did his utmost to wheedle his way out of his sentence. He managed to defer eight executions through lengthy battles with the courts. Needless to say his appeals failed or you wouldn’t be reading this.

Checked late

On the morning of his ninth execution date, Chessman announced ‘this is a hell of a way to start the week’. And he wasn’t wrong. After a 12-year battle to get his death sentences overturned, the 38-year-old’s time had run out. But even as the pellets fell and his body reacted to the noxious fumes, there was a kerfuffle as the federal judge called asking for yet another stay of execution.

Apparently the whole thing could have been stopped too as Chessman had been holding his breath at the beginning of the execution but the warden in charged ruled that it was too late. He was later criticised for that decision, and it was this close shave that fuelled the anti-capital punishment furore. Of course, we’ll never know what the outcome of Chessman’s appeal would have been.

Also on this day

2 May 2006 – Joseph Lewis Clark

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