Wednesday, April 09, 2008

2 songs about CARYL CHESSMAN


The name might be familiar to you. Peter Gabriel name-checked him briefly on "Lamb Lies Down on Broadway." Phil Ochs in his album notes said his song "The Iron Lady" was influenced by the Chessman case. Alan Alda played him in "Kill Me If You Can." Any discussion of the death penalty usually includes the story of the "Red Light Bandit" who didn't actually kill anyone, but who was sentenced to death and waged a clever, spectacular battle for his life...doing a lot of time before his time was up.
A career criminal with a brilliant mind, Chessman was able to win support for his cause by writing a book while in prison and smuggling it out for publication. Before long, the issue wasn't whether Chessman was innocent or guilty (a fairly even split on that) but whether his crime, or any crime, warranted the maximum penalty.
Chessman drew celebrity support from all over the world, but it didn't soften Governor Edmund Brown. He might've had better luck with the man's son Jerry Brown, who would also become a California governor (in the 70's, and a fringe presidential candidate three times). Many simply believed Chessman's sentence was already too long, and his many last-minute stays of executions were beyond cruel and unusual punishment.
Ironically during his lifetime, it was a pair of country singers who rallied to Chessman's defense. These protest songs against the death penalty were simple enough.
"Country" Johnny Mathis sang, "No one knows his tortured mind, the way he's lived to die 8 times..." and then, addressing Caryl personally: "The world has come to know your name, but they don't live your burning pain...now you wait...Chessman what will be your fate...you've done your best, and now you wait...Chessman, what will be your fate?"
Ronnie Hawkins likewise notes, "Caryl Chessman spent 12 years in San Quentin waitin' for his execution day. What they're sayin' may be true, but what good would killin' him do? Everywhere you go, people say: let 'im live, let 'em live. I'm not sayin' forget or forgive. If he's guilty of his crime, keep him in jail a long long time, but let 'im live, let 'im live, let 'im live."
Hawkins acknowledges two of the three crimes ("Did he kidnap, did he rob") but not the odious third...sexual assault. The Red Light Bandit's m.o. was to drive into a lover's lane, pretending to be a cop (red light on the car roof) and then turn from good guy to pure evil. (Chessman indignantly insisted he was a career thief, but not a pervert.) Whatever his crimes, Hawkins sings, "Killin' laws were made by man, not according to God's plan," and the only reason Chessman got the death sentence was a loophole whereby pulling a woman out of her car was deemed an act of "kidnap."
You know the end result. Once again, at the very last minute, a clever legal maneuver won Caryl Chessman a reprieve. A secretary was ordered to dial the prison with the news, but she got a wrong number. By the time she re-dialed and got through, the gas pellets had already dropped. The date was May 2, 1960.
RONNIE HAWKINS
"COUNTRY" JOHNNY MATHIS

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