Monday, March 19, 2007


Sometimes an obscure person becomes famous by getting executed. The four cases presented here led to songs that have immortalized the mere mortal.
What's your view on the death penalty?
Should it never be used? Is it better or crueler to let someone rot in a tiny cell? Perhaps the death penalty should be reserved only for cases of premeditated murder or mass murder, such as Lennon's killer or The Son of Sam (both residing rather comfortably in New York State).
The four cases here involve an alleged rapist who never killed anyone, a druggie who went nuts with a murderous boyfriend, a guy whose partner killed a cop, and a somewhat slow man who was innocent and framed by the real killer.
CARYL CHESSMAN (top left) was a career criminal, but his rap sheet didn't include rape, and the masked "Red Light Bandit," not only robbed motorists he sexually assaulted female passengers. Caught in a car with a red light (simulating a police car's light) and unwilling to say who was using the car besides himself, Chessman was convicted of multiple felonies including kidnapping (for dragging a woman out of a car against her will). In California, kidnapping could be punished by death. And it was. Chessman fought an amazing battle to stay alive and wrote a best-selling autobiography while on death row. After many years, he finally died because a secretary mis-dialed the warden's office and the latest stay of execution was received too late. Some say a rapist deserves death, and a career criminal is no loss. Two country songs challenged the death penalty in the Chessman case (as did celebrities around the world). A reference to Chessman turns up in "The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway" Genesis album. Should Chessman have died?
KARLA FAYE TUCKER was white trash in Texas, a teen groupie with the Allman Brothers Band, later a heroin addict and prostitute. She lived in a slum where everyone did drugs, and a Harley dripping oil and stinking of fumes was safer in the house than outside. Karla hated the guy who owned the Harley, especially since he routinely beat his wife (a friend of Karla's). Karla and her latest boyfriend planned on wrecking the guy's bike, but after a binge of drugs, they beat the guy to a pulp, along with his latest girlfriend, who had been hiding in the darkness. In prison, Tucker was apparently "born again," and many insisted her early environment had much to do with her crime. If various bloody female followers of Manson could escape the death penalty, how about a reprieve for Karla? After 15 years on death row could anyone say she was the same person she once was? Her pleas for mercy were ignored by Gov. George W. Bush who declared: "Karla Faye Tucker has acknowledged she is guilty of a horrible crime. She was convicted and sentenced by a jury of her peers. The role of the state is to enforce our laws...May God bless Karla Faye Tucker and may God bless her victims and their families." Should a messed up woman's one night of brutality mean execution?
In Great Britain, Tim Evans died in 1950 and Derek Bentley in 1953. Ewan MacColl wrote protest songs after the executions, focusing on the glaring injustices in both high-profile cases.
TIM EVANS (lower left), his wife and child, lived uncomfortably in a poor walk-up apartment. Their arguments were heard by a neighbor, Dr. Christie. When the police found the body of Mrs. Evans, and the child, Tim was long gone, on the advice of the good doctor. Frightened during interogation, and not having much to live for, he confessed. Then he recanted. Ewan Maccoll's brilliant song (alternately called "Go Down Ye Murderer") seems to follow, with justifiable vengeance, the execution of a murderer. The song was recently covered by Karan Casey. Should Evans, with a previous clean record and protests of innocence, have gotten the death penalty?
Teens DEREK BENTLEY and Chris Craig were just a pair of Croydon punks. During a warehouse burglary gone wrong, they were stopped by a policeman. Craig waved his gun. Bentley shouted, "Let him have it, Chris." Meaning, hand over the gun? Craig chose the slang meaning, and shot the cop dead. He was a bit under the legal age for a hanging, but not Bentley. Though he had not fired the gun, Derek was deemed just as guilty as Craig. MacColl's song seethes over the boy's death while the chorus grimaces at the comic books and violent films that "educated" the young criminals. Elvis Costello re-visited the case and wrote his own version ("Let Him Dangle') decades later. Should Bentley, or anyone, get the death penalty when they haven't actually killed anyone? Chris Craig served ten years in jail and has not been in trouble with the law since.

CARYL CHESSMAN - Ronnie Hawkins
CARYL CHESSMAN - Country Johnny Mathis
KARLA FAYE - Mark Knopfler
KARLA FAYE - Mary Gauthier
LET HIM DANGLE - Elvis Costello