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The Governor and the Condemned Man

It’s February 19, 1960. Caryl Chessman, tall, broad-shouldered, hawk nosed, sits on the edge of a hard, narrow bed. Clenching his fists and biting his lips, he stares at the bare walls of Cell 2455, Death Row, then out through a small, barred window and across the dark waters of San Francisco Bay from San Quentin Prison to the lights of the city.

It’s February 19, 1960. Caryl Chessman, tall, broad-shouldered, hawk nosed, sits on the edge of a hard, narrow bed. Clenching his fists and biting his lips, he stares at the bare walls of Cell 2455, Death Row, then out through a small, barred window and across the dark waters of San Francisco Bay from San Quentin Prison to the lights of the city.

One-hundred miles north, Edmund G. (Pat) Brown, the pudgy, owlish 32nd governor of California, also sits alone, perched on the edge of an overstuffed arm chair. Puffing incessantly on a cigar, he studies the ornate design in the pale, green wallpaper that covers the walls of the Victorian parlor of the governor’s mansion in Sacramento, as he agonizes over whether to spare Caryl Chessman from execution the next morning. Outside, I and a half-dozen other reporters, chilling in the harsh night air, anxiously await his decision.

Although it’s been 50 years, the events of that cold February evening and those immediately preceding and following them, remain vivid in my memory, and surely in the memories of many others, as among the most dramatic in modern California history. Californians weren’t alone in their concern over whether Chessman should be executed. The Chessman case had become a major issue internationally, with millions urging Governor Brown to spare Chessman.

Brown was one of California’s finest governors. He was, as he once said of John Kennedy, a chief executive who carried out a strong belief “in people and the political process for solving human problems.” Brown’s contributions were many, and among the most important were those stemming from that agonizing night. The evening was as significant for Chessman, whose courage and determination inspired people throughout the world to actively oppose capital punishment. His actions, as those of Brown, had a profound and lasting impact.

Brown was convinced that Chessman had been unjustly condemned. “They got him on technicalities,” the governor noted – not on charges of killing anyone, but under a law, since repealed, that made kidnapping for the purpose of robbery, with bodily harm a capital offense. Two cases were involved. In both, Chessman was charged with sexually attacking women, taking money from them and “kidnapping” them by, in one case, forcibly moving the woman from one room in a house to another and, in the other case, driving the alleged victim a few miles in a car.

Chessman insisted, at any rate, that he was not guilty, and for almost a dozen years up until that night 50 years ago, he had fended off execution. Six other times he had been scheduled for death, but, each time, he had won reprieves from the courts, largely on the basis of his own carefully researched arguments against errors in the trial proceedings that had led to his death sentence.

Finally, as he faced his seventh appointment in San Quentin’s gas chamber, Chessman appealed to the governor for executive clemency that would free him at last from the threat of execution.

Brown was an avowed foe of the death penalty. But he insisted that as long as capital punishment was on California’s statute books, he had no choice but to “uphold and faithfully execute” the law, even including its unjust technicalities.

That’s what Brown had done earlier in his political career as district attorney for San Francisco and later as state attorney general, calling for the death penalty in legally appropriate cases. True, Brown had granted clemency to 22 of the 62 people who were scheduled for execution during his two terms as governor, but none of them attracted the public attention that Chessman drew.

None of the other condemned men had so loudly, so arrogantly and so eloquently proclaimed their innocence and disdain for the law that threatened them with death. Only Chessman had managed to stave off a death sentence for so long, damning and exposing in court and in the books he wrote from his prison cell, the serious failings of a legal system that relied on the gas chamber. Only Chessman rallied millions of people to support him and to oppose the law and those pledged to “uphold and faithfully execute” it.

Chessman, Brown complained at the time, sought “only vindication.” That the governor would not grant. Nor would he grant clemency to Chessman – because, said Brown, the evidence of his guilt is overwhelming. Many who were familiar with the case, including prominent lawyers and law enforcement, disagreed strongly with that assessment. But like the complaint that Chessman’s death sentence was based on “technicalities,” that was almost beside the point.

Much more important were the political considerations involved. Politically, Brown’s course was by far the wisest he could have taken. Virtually every newspaper in the state, virtually every politician and a clear majority of the general public were clamoring for the death of a man who so boldly had defied their system of justice, a man who had, in effect, dared them to “kill me if you can.”

“The mob may applaud treating me arbitrarily and arrogantly, history won’t,” Chessman wrote the governor. “But, then, history can’t vote.”

Chessman obviously had little reason for hope, as he sat on the edge of his hard prison bed on that February night a half-century ago, awaiting the morning and death.

But Governor Brown was having second thoughts as he sat staring at the parlor wall in Sacramento. Brown flipped through a tall stack of letters and telegrams from all over the world urging clemency for Chessman, some from close political allies such as Eleanor Roosevelt.

There also were petitions, including one from Brazil, with more than two million signatures. Among the hundreds of telegrams was one from an assistant secretary of state warning there might be anti-American rioting throughout South America if Chessman went to the gas chamber. There was a telephone call from Brown’s 22-year-old son Jerry – who would one day be governor, too – urging that Chessman be spared.

Most of all, there was Brown’s very troubled conscience. He began ‘”doubting the righteousness” of his position, he later told some reporters privately, now that he was “the one man on God’s green earth between another man and death.” Brown knew very well, however, that sparing Chessman would subject him to severe criticism that could do great harm to his extremely promising political career.

Finally, after two hours of hard, painful thought, Brown reached a decision.

The governor could not commute Chessman’s death sentence to life imprisonment or to any other lesser penalty. Under California law, that would have required approval by the State Supreme Court, and the court had previously voted 4-3 against commutation. But the governor was able to grant Chessman a 60-day reprieve, in the meantime calling the State Legislature into special session to consider Brown’s proposal for abolition of the death penalty in California.

The furor was immediate and fierce. Letters poured into Brown’s office at the rate of 1,000 a day, attacking the governor and Chessman in foul, violent language. Newspaper editorialists were as outraged over Brown’s reprieve of a man they called a “depraved fiend … filthy monster … psychopath,” an example of “the scum among us which should be pushing up the daisies.”

Abortive movements for Brown’s impeachment or recall were quickly begun, and legislators from both parties complained bitterly because the governor had, in effect, tossed the Chessman case to the Legislature, where 100 of the 120 seats were to be contested in the fall elections later that year.

Brown’s political influence dwindled rapidly, and he backed off on his promise to “do everything in my power” for the abolition proposal. He merely submitted it for the Legislature’s consideration.

The abolition bill didn’t make it out of committee, even after Chessman urged that, if necessary, it be amended “in such a way as to exclude me.” He told legislators, “I am willing to die if that will bring about this desperately needed social reform.”

Chessman was executed 50 years ago last month, on May 2, 1960. But though that did not bring about formal abolition of the death penalty, the move for abolition that his long struggle had inspired, and Brown’s efforts in launching that movement, eventually had the effect hoped for by Chessman, Brown and the millions of people who supported them.

Few cases were as instrumental in generating the pressure that finally led in 1967 to a virtual moratorium on executions that lasted for nearly a quarter-century in most states, for a quarter-century in California and some others.

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