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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

by Clark Howard

The Ninth Life

On the morning of Monday, May 2, 1960, Reverend Byron Eshelman, 45, a Congregational minister who was the Protestant chaplain at San Quentin State Prison in California, said good-bye to his wife, Anne, and left his residence, which was outside the walls of the prison itself, but inside the gated complex of the extended prison compound. A handsome man of average height, with thick black hair and neatly trimmed moustache, Eshelman always wore a black or navy blue suit, with a white shirt and conservatively striped necktie. He had been a prison minister for most of his 18-year religious career, having served at the Federal detention Center in New York, and then at Alcatraz, prior to coming to San Quentin. His father had been a small town Kansas preacher before him.

On this particular morning, as Eshelman walked two blocks down the pleasant, tree-lined street of the prison residential area, his normally pleasant expression was more somber than most people had ever seen it. Brow pinched in deep concentration, he felt like a man in a dark room, unable to find a light switch. In less than two hours, a man was scheduled to be executed in the prison's gas chamber -- and Byron Eshelman believed him to be innocent. The situation was like an invisible shroud of anxiety and dread that cloaked his every thought.

San Quentin's front gate

At the end of the street, off to the left, was the prison's main gate, through which visitors were admitted to a long drive flanked on the left side by a parking lot overlooking San Pablo Bay, and on the right by a long row of prison administration buildings, then terminating at the prison wall itself. Eshelman paused for several moments to study the crowd gathered just outside the gate. The road beyond the gate was glutted with parked vehicles, teeming with protestors, crowded with reporter s and photographers who had not been among the members of the press selected for admission. Many of the demonstrators carried signs express ing their opposition to the execution: This is justice? He didn't kill anyone! This is legal murder! Stop the madness!

Protestors (Associated Press)

Eshelman observed that many of the protestors were very young, some appearing no older than their late teens. Near a lunch truck selling coffee and doughnuts, he saw a group of reporters interviewing a man he believed to be television entertainer Steve Allen, an ardent supporter of the condemned man. A radio broadcast earlier that morning had reported that Marlon Brando and Shirley MacLaine were also expected to join the demonstrators.

Waving to the gate officers, Eshelman crossed to a sidewalk and proceeded about fifty yards along the drive above the parking lot, went past the San Quentin lighthouse, and turned left another dozen yards, across from the officers snack bar and barber shop, to a solid steel door bearing a sign that ordered: positively no smoking inside. Knocking, Eshelman was admitted into a room with walls painted the medium green color of Bermuda grass. It was the Witness Room, where officially designated spectators would be brought to observe the execution. Four sides of the octagonal gas chamber formed the inner wall of the room, each with a large, shatter-proof window, sealed air-tight, for clear viewing of the two metal death chairs inside. The chamber had been manufactured by Eaton Metal Products in Salt Lake City, Utah. A handrail curved around this side of the chamber, and a sign instructed: keep outside railing at all times.

The room was empty at the moment, and Eshelman followed the railing to a second, inner steel door and knocked again. After being identified through a peephole, he was admitted to the private side of the chamber, the Preparation Room. It was in there that the deadly pound of cyanide eggs were tied into a gauze bundle to be hung onto a lever under one of the chairs, where it would eventually be lowered into a vat of sulfuric acid. The resulting chemical reaction would create colorless hydrocyanic gas which would rapidly fill the chamber. Inhaling that gas would paralyze the heart and lungs of anyone who inhaled it.

Eshelman walked through the Preparation Room, past the open door of the gas chamber itself, and continued through a narrow hallway a dozen feet long into the Holding Room. There, in one of two small cells, just large enough for a twin mattress on the floor, a seatless toilet in the corner, and a writing table that folded onto the wall, stood the condemned man that Byron Eshelman had come to see.

His name was Caryl Chessman. He had been on Death Row for eleven years and ten months -- to the day -- which was longer, at the time, than anyone in the history of capital punishment in America. He was now facing death for the ninth time, after eight stays of execution.

Eshelman walked past two death watch officers and stepped up to the bars, where the Catholic chaplain, Father Edward Dingberg, already was talking to Chessman.

"Good morning, Caryl," Eshelman said. "I guess it's still a good morning." 
Chessman shrugged. "No good news, but no bad news." Then he grinned. "But it's a hell of a way to begin a week."

Caryl Chessman (Corbis) 

Chessman was six feet tall and weighed 190. His thick black hair had receded into a prominent widow's peak. With a nose that was hooked, an upper lip that gave him a permanent sneer, and cold, direct eyes, there was an aura of threat about him. He stood holding the cell bars like a convict in a prison movie.

All three men knew that the California Supreme Court had gone into session at eight a.m. in Sacramento. The court was considering a petition from Chessman for the sixteenth time; it had turned him down fifteen times.

"How do you feel about your chances?" Eshelman asked quietly. 
"Like I'm going to go this time," Chessman replied candidly. "After all, this is my ninth execution date. Even a cat only has nine lives."

Eshelman felt as if someone had punched him hard in the chest. All he could think was: This is the wrong man.


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