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Caryl Chessman Trial: 1948

Controversial Transcript

On May 21, 1948, Chessman was found guilty on all charges, with punishment fixed at death, and held, pending formal sentencing. Then something unusual occurred. The court reporter, Ernest Perry, an elderly man who had been ill during the trial, died from a coronary thrombosis, leaving behind his 1,800 pages of shorthand testimony. Chessman pounced. Under California law, if the court reporter died before transcribing his notes in a civil case, a new trial must be held. On June 25, 1948, Judge Fricke, pointing out that this was a criminal case, not civil, refused Chessman's request for a new trial. Then he sentenced him to death twice.

In September 1948 responsibility for transcribing the shorthand notes was given to Stanley Fraser, who just happened to be the uncle of prosecutor Leavy. (He also received $10,000 for the task, three times the going rate.) Worse than that, Fraser had several times been arrested for drunkenness—once while actually taking dictation in court. Chessman argued that the transcription which Fraser provided was hopelessly biased and inaccurate.

Over the next decade this mutilated transcript formed the bedrock of Chessman's historic struggle against his sentence. He won eight stays of execution, some within hours of the appointed time. He also wrote three books. The first, Cell 2455, Death Rowz, became a best seller and made him an international cause c61kbre.

But on May 2, 1960, Chessman's ordeal ended in the San Quentin gas chamber. The circumstances of his execution were remarkably similar to those of Burton Abbott (see separate entry), three years earlier. Just seconds after guards sealed the door, a ninth stay of execution was telephoned through. Like Abbott's, it came too late. Caryl Chessman's fight was over.

No matter which side one takes regarding Chessman's guilt or innocence, few now doubt that his trial was seriously flawed. Had he been properly represented, there is every likelihood that his sentence would have been commuted. But because, in the eyes of those who mattered, he had brought the law into disrepute, he paid the ultimate price. Arrogance undid him. An old legal maxim states that anyone who defends himself has a fool for a client. Never was this more vividly demonstrated than in the trial of Caryl Chessman.

Colin Evans

Suggestions for Further Reading

Brown, Edmund G. and Dick Adler. Public Justice, Private lercy. New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989.

Chessman, Caryl. Cell 2455, Death Row. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1954.

Machlin, Milton and William Read Woodfield. Ninth Life. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1961.

Parker, Frank J. Caryl Chessman, The Red Light Bandit. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1975.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1941 to 1953Caryl Chessman Trial: 1948 - Defends Himself, Controversial Transcript