Caryl Chessman Trial: 1948
Defends Himself, Controversial Transcript
Defendant: Caryl Whittier Chessman
Crimes Charged: Kidnapping, sexual perversion, and robbery
Chief Defense Lawyers: Caryl Chessman and Al Matthews
Chief Prosecutor: J. Miller Leavy
Judge: Charles W. Fricke
Place: Los Angeles, California
Dates of Trial: April 4-May 21, 1948
SIGNIFICANCE: Caryl Chessman's uniquely documented struggle against capital punishment not only aroused global sympathy for a possibly innocent man, but highlighted the imponderable sluggishness of the U.S. death penalty process.
In January 1948, a 27-year-old career criminal named Caryl Chessman was arrested after a car chase and shootout as a suspect in the armed robbery of a men's clothing store in Los Angeles, California. When police searched the stolen Ford that Chessman was driving, they found a penlight and a. 45-caliber automatic pistol, items that made them suspect that Chessman might be the "Red Light Bandit," a man who had been driving up to couples in parked cars, flashing a red light to make them think it was a police car, then robbing the couples and forcing some of the women to perform sexual acts. Despite the fact that Chessman bore little physical resemblance to descriptions of the attacker, several victims identified him. The charge sheet included multiple counts of robbery, two counts of sexual perversion, and—most importantly—three counts of violating Section 209 of the California Penal Code, the so-called "Little Lindbergh Law." This covered kidnapping with intent to commit robbery: if bodily harm could also be proved, Section 209 was punishable by death.
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