Paul V. Coates – Confidential File, Jan. 29, 1960
January 29, 2010 | 2:00 pm
Here's a Fishy Story From Death Row
This is the story of a fish, but it's not a fish story.
It lives on San Quentin's Death Row. It's a salt-water fish -- possibly a smelt -- about 1 1/2 inches long.
Regulations on the Row permit no pets, but so far the fish has been able to flout them.
The story goes that Caryl Chessman, an expert in the art of prison smuggling, was the fish's first known possessor.
He claimed that he found it swimming around in his bathroom plumbing a few weeks ago, and the explanation isn't an illogical one. Death Row plumbing is hooked up with the San Pablo Strait.
Chessman provided housing for the fish in a plastic peanut-butter container and began weaning it on a diet of gnats and flies.
The fish thrived and several of the other 19 Row inhabitants volunteered -- immediately and willingly -- to serve as its keeper. But the man to whom Chessman passed it along hadn't asked for it at all.
He was Charles Brubaker, who has a March 10 date with the gas chamber for the strangulation slaying of a Los Angeles woman and her 9-year-old son.
He, according to Chessman, looked like the kind of a guy who needed a pet the most.
Now, life on the Row revolves around the tiny fish. At first, the condemned kept its presence a secret, apparently fearing that it, too, might become condemned. But once the guards found out and apparently decided to let it remain, it's become an all day conversation piece.
Its care and feeding, its sex, an appropriate name, new foster-father candidates when Brubaker takes his long walk -- all are discussed.
And from the fragmental reports which I've received of the discussions, strange whimsies build in the heads and hearts of men who've got nothing to do but wait for death.
The mascot's selected name isn't printable. In grim jailhouse caprice, they determined that it was a male by studying its reactions as they waved pinup pictures in front of its peanut-butter-container home.
And, at last report, the favored plan for inheritance of the fish after Brubaker goes was to pass it along to the man whose date with death was closest. That way, every condemned man -- before he went -- could contribute to the sustenance of the life of a fish.
At the moment, the life of a 1 1/2 inch fish, which apparently took the wrong turn up a plumbing pipe, is valued more than any other by the men on Death Row.
Teamster official Frank Matula's court-ordered furlough from jail to attend a union conference raised a lot of eyebrows this month.
But one eyebrow it didn't raise belongs to Edsel Newton, a reporter who's been writing stories about this town longer than most of us have been alive.
Edsel's the editor of the Los Angeles Daily Journal, official newspaper of L.A. city and county.
The Old Fashioned Way
And coincident with the "special privilege" cries over the Matula case, he ran the following item in his regular "Yesterday's Journal" feature which recounts old news stories from his paper's files:
50 Years Age
"The Daily Journal noted editorially that a convicted boodler (grafter) had a seven-year term in San Quentin pending for 18 months and was still free, that the Federal Circuit Court had ordered him released from County Jail: that he was a man of wealth and influence, and . . . 'the public wants to know the reason for relieving men of either wealth or political influence when convicts without either are never so treated.'
"It quoted President Taft: 'Our criminal procedure in California is a disgrace to civilization.' "
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