Paul V. Coates – Confidential File, Jan. 27, 1960
January 27, 2010 | 2:00 pm
Case of Go for Broke, Caryl Chessman Says
Caryl Chessman's legal fight to beat the gas chamber resumes tomorrow.
The 38-year-old senior statesman of San Quentin's Death Row (he's been there 11 1/2 years) returns to the courts for another hearing in an effort to beat his Feb. 19 appointment with the cyanide pills.
But the courtroom battle could be just a prelude to a split in purpose that's building between the author-convict and some of the groups which have been supporting him in his fight-for-life.
The majority of those who took up Chessman's cause here in the United States did so because (1) they felt he wasn't given a fair opportunity to appeal his trial conviction, and (2) the kidnapping offenses for which he was sentenced to die weren't "kidnapping" in the intended legal sense of the word. The prosecution, they felt, took advantage of a technical interpretation of the law.
Many others joined the battle because they felt that nearly 12 years on Death Row was punishment enough for his crimes.
Their goal, first, has been to get Chessman out of Death Row, and second, to get a new trial for him.
But now, politely, he's brushing them off.
Through Atty. Rosalie Asher, he has told the Friends' Committee on Legislation -- the Quaker group which has been circulating clemency petitions requesting Gov. Brown and President Eisenhower to spare his life -- that he wants nothing to do with their campaign.
Presumably, they'd be willing, for the present, at least, to accept life imprisonment without possibility of parole as reasonable mercy.
This, Chessman doesn't want.
Yesterday my assistant returned from a three-hour visit with the convicted Red Light Bandit in San Quentin.
"When I leave Death Row," Chessman told him, "I either want to go free or go straight to the gas chamber.
"I have no intention of going back out into the prison courtyard and fighting my case from there," he added.
My assistant asked him about the Friend's Committee and their clemency petitions.
"I appreciate their motives -- what they've done," he answered, "but I don't want anything to do with any clemency moves. The way I feel now, I've had it. I want a new trial. Or I want to walk to the gas chamber."
A new trial, he maintained, would be the answer to all of his problems. Chessman has claimed from the day he was arrested that he was innocent of all charges against him.
Caught in the middle of the clash is Atty. Asher, who passed his message along to the Friends. One of the leaders in the campaign to save his life feels that she's the force behind his decision to sever connections with the clemency campaign.
This, Chessman denied to my assistant.
"The decision is my own," he insisted. "I feel it would be inconsistent for an innocent man to ask for mercy."
Chessman's current attitude could also cause problems for him with his legions of international followers.
Clemency movements have been organized by private citizens -- some with strong support of newspapers -- in France, England, Denmark, Switzerland, Norway, New Zealand, Canada, Uruguay, Brazil, Portugal, Ceylon and Italy.
A Brazilian industrialist, who was instrumental in obtaining 2,600,000 signatures on petitions for Chessman, was recently turned down by the convicted kidnap-rapist when he volunteered to instigate a Brazilian boycott of U.S. goods in protest.
He Studies Fingernails
"If you do win your freedom," my assistant asked Chessman, "what do you plan to do?"
The Death Row inmate studied his finely manicured nails for a moment.
"I've got an offer to go to Brazil," he said. "I might go there. Or I might go to one of the Scandinavian countries. I want to continue writing.
"Understand me," he added. "I'd prefer to remain in the United States, but I'm afraid that life would be made too difficult for me here."