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The Ninth Life
The Golden State
Mosquito Bites
Hard Times
The Accident
The Outsider
Running Wild
Escape Risk
A Creative Urge
The Boy Bandit Gang
The Big Time
Bernice Freeman
Flight From Chino
Back in Business
Back in Prison
The Red Light Bandit
Stick-up in Redondo Beach
A Little Ride
The Charges
Section 209
Preliminary Hearing
The Hatchet Man
The Judge
The Trial
The Verdict
Journey to Death Row
A Visit From the Warden
A Visit From Berni
The Transcript
Dates with Death
A Woman in His Life
Cell 2455 Death Row
More Dates With Death
Appeals and More Appeals
The Transcript Hearing
The Hollywood Version
The Face of Justice
Last Innings
The Last Stay
Last Life
The Last Day
Execution Morning
The Author
By the Same Author


The True Story of Caryl Chessman

Execution Morning

Chessman's breakfast tray was brought to him at 7:00 A. M. Ham and eggs, toast, two small cartons of milk. Chessman opened one of the milks and drank it down completely in several large swallows. It brought immediate relief to the discomfort of a raging duodenal ulcer that he had been irritating most of the night with cups of hot coffee to stay awake. He'd had the ulcer for nearly ten years -- almost as long as he had been on Death Row. As soon as his stomach quieted down, he ate the rest of his breakfast. 

Finishing up a few last notes that he was writing longhand on a yellow legal pad, he put them in addressed envelopes, sealed them, and gave them to one of the two death watch guards to be turned over, through the warden's office, to Rosalie Asher for distribution.

In San Francisco, Rosalie and George Davis were at the California Supreme Court where the seven justices arrived at 8:00 A. M. to begin deliberations on a new writ presented to them in Chessman's behalf. Nobody really believed that the panel would grant it, but Chessman's attorneys felt they had to keep trying. Besides, neither one of them wanted to witness the execution, and this was a good enough reason not to. By nine o'clock, the petition was denied by a vote of 4-3. The two attorneys hurried to the nearby offices of U. S. District Judge Louis E. Goodman.

In the holding cell area, Chessman was visited once again by Reverend Eshelman and Father Dingberg. He politely declined their spiritual comfort, telling them for a final time what he had been telling them for years: that he was an agnostic. Several minutes later, Warden Dickson came in. A small radio on the death watch guard's desk was tuned to a San Francisco news station. Twice the broadcaster reported that there was no indication that the execution of the "notorious rapist-holdup man" would not finally be carried out. 

Associate warden Louis "Red" Nelson, who would one day succeed Dickson as warden, presently came in to assist with the execution. It was common knowledge that Nelson, a straightforward career penologist, had never been impressed with Chessman and did not like him. The feeling, on Chessman's part, was mutual. But on this morning the two men were heard to exchange a few quiet words.

"You ready to go today, Chessman?" Nelson asked.
"Ready as I'll ever be, Red," Chessman replied.
"How many guys have gone to the chamber since you got here , anyway?" Nelson asked.
"Ninety-two," Chessman told him. "And one woman."
"That's a lot of people," Nelson commented.
"Lot of people," Chessman agreed.

Nelson walked on away. Chessman opened his second carton of milk as he felt his stomach begin to churn again. Drink ing, he looked up at the clock on the death watch wall. It was 9:25.

In San Rafael, Berni Freeman was making coffee when one of her daughters, Barbara, drove up to the big, old, roomy, hillside house that Berni and her husband had recently bought. Barbara had brought along Berni's granddaughter, Deborah, who was ten, and one of Deborah's little friends . Berni and Barbara drank coffee on a 40-foot sundeck off the living room while the children played. Avoiding the subject of Chessman, the two women reminisced about the old days when Berni was struggling to raise her four girls. Times, they both agreed, had certainly changed.

In San Francisco, Rosalie Asher and George Davis pleaded with Judge Goodman for time to prepare another federal appeal. Goodman was disinclined to do so; what would be the use? Every level of every state and federal court had already ruled on the matter. As they were discussing it, Goodman's secretary, Celeste Hickey, came in to advise the judge that a radio bulletin had just announced that in Washington, U. S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, who had granted Chessman's last federal stay, had just been interviewed and stated unequivocally that he would not intervene this time. The news bolstered Goodman's inclination to do likewise.

At 9:50, Chessman was given a new white shirt to wear, and the door was opened between the holding cell and the short hallway to the gas chamber door. When Chessman got his shirt on, he put a cigarette between his lips and Reverend Eshelman lighted it for him. The four-man execution squad, headed by longtime corrections officer Joe Ferretti, moved into place and the death watch cell door was unlocked. Warden Dickson gestured for Chessman to step out of the cell.

"You going to be all right?" Dickson asked him. 
Chessman nodded. "Don't worry. I'll be able to hold up and go through with it." He grinned briefly, nervously; the fingers holding the cigarette shook. "There's no use denying fear," he said. "It's how you handle it that counts." Then he said to everyone present, "I know some of you will be asked if there were any last-minute confessions, so I just want to keep the record straight. I am not the Red Light Bandit. I am not the man. I won't belabor the point; just let it stand at that."

The doctor stepped up and unbuttoned Chessman's shirt enough to tape one end of a stethoscope to Chessman's chest; then he rebuttoned the shirt with several inches of the stethoscope tubing sticking out. There was a moment then when no one moved, no one spoke, as if they were all suspended in time.

In Judge Goodman's office, George Davis was pleading for at least a short stay of execution to allow him and Rosalie Asher to present the alleged new evidence uncovered by the Argosy magazine writers who believed they had learned who the "real" Red Light Bandit was.
"Please, Judge, just let us give you an overview of what these men have uncovered," Davis begged. "It could save an innocent man's life!"
"All right," Goodman finally capitulated. "I'll give you one hour, that's all." He buzzed for Celeste Hickey again. "Call Warden Dickson at San Quentin," he instructed. "Tell him to delay the execution for one hour on my order."

Celeste Hickey hurried out to her desk.

At 10:01, Warden Dickson nodded to Chessman. He straightened, swallowed, put his shoulders back, and walked purposefully, without any help from the execution squad, with no shoes, only socks, along the short carpeted hall, past associate warden Red Nelson, and stepped over the threshold through the big riveted door into the gas chamber. Joe Ferretti, inches behind him, directed him to the chair on the right.

Chessman paused, looking at three members of the Los Angeles police department, who were in the front row beyond the center window as official witnesses. One was Sgt. Colin Forbes, who had been in charge of the Red Light Bandit case; another was Officer Don Grant, the man Chessman accused in court of calling him a "rapist son of a bitch," and beating him for thirty minutes at the Hollywood Station where he was being held. 

But it was the officer in the middle of the trio who caught Chessman's attention; he seemed to be staring at Chessman with a peculiar, cold intensity. Chessman had no idea why; he had never seen the man before. He had no way of knowing that it was Officer Andrew Brennan, who was now the husband of Regina Johnson. Regina's much older husband, Harry Johnson, had died of cancer two years after Chessman's trial, and Regina had married Andy Brennan a year later. The LAPD had decided that he could represent both the department and his wife at the execution.

Mary Alice Meza had no representative witness, and Mary Alice herself was in Camarillo state mental hospital, where she had been for eight years. She was considered to be a hopeless schizophrenic. Here doctors said she often had nightmares about the man who had kidnaped and sexually assaulted her.

Finally the execution squad turned Chessman's back to the trio of policemen, sat him in the death chair, quickly strapped him in, and attached the stethoscope tube on his chest to another, longer one that ran outside the wall of the chamber. Through a side window, Chessman saw the two women reporters he had invited, Eleanor Black and Mary Crawford. To Eleanor he mouthed the words, "Tell Rosalie I said goodbye. It's all right." Eleanor made a circle with her thumb and forefinger to signal that she understood . Chessman glanced around for Bill Linhart, but the private investigator was not among the witnesses.

The execution squad left the chamber and quickly closed and sealed the big airtight door. At 10:03 A. M., Warden Dickson nodded to Max Brice, the state executioner, a tall man in a dark business suit, who stood next to him. Brice moved a lever and a dozen egg-shaped Dupont cyanide pellets in a cheesecloth bag were lowered into a vat of sulphuric acid under the death chair. Almost instantly, deadly invisible fumes began to rise in the chamber. Chessman took a deep breath and held it, warding off unconsciousness for as long as possible. But the fumes must have reached him very quickly because witnesses saw his nose twitch, then he expelled the breath he was holding and breathed in. He looked over at Eleanor Black once again and smiled a sad, half-smile just before his head fell forward. Seconds later, foamy saliva began to drool from his open mouth. Outside the chamber, the emergency telephone rang. Associate warden Red Nelson answered it. The caller was Judge Goodman's secretary. In her 
nervous haste, she had first dialed a wrong number, then had to hang up and redial San Quentin. When she quickly told Nelson the purpose of her call, he said simply, "It's too late. The execution has begun." There was no way to stop the fumes, and no way to open the door and rescue the condemned man without the deadly fumes killing others.

In the chamber, Caryl Chessman's body began to react to the death that was seizing it. He vomited up part of his breakfast; his bladder and bowels emptied inside his clothes. Then his heart stopped beating. At 10:12 the physician listening through the stethoscope advised Warden Dickson that Chessman was dead. Dickson turned to one of the execution squad officers. "Start the blowers."

The officer threw a switch and a fan high above the chamber began to suck out the fumes and the stench.

Over in San Francisco, in Judge Goodman's office, Rosalie Asher was sobbing uncontrollably.


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