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Patt Morrison asks: 'Chessman' playwright Joseph Rodota on California's ongoing civil war over the death penalty

One reason Californians will be voting, again, about the death penalty, next month, is because of a man named Caryl Chessman. He was called the “Red Light Bandit,” and he was executed in 1960 for several crimes, but none of them was murder. He made himself internationally famous, giving interviews and writing books about crime, law, and himself. Madame Tussauds had a wax version of him on display. Luminaries from Aldous Huxley to the Rev. Billy Graham argued against putting him to death. The case was a harrowing one for California's governor, Pat Brown, and for his family, including his son, the future governor, a young Jerry Brown. The Brown family and Chessman’s case are the subject of Joseph Rodota’s new play “Chessman,” which opens this week at Sacramento’s B Street Theatre.  Ever since Chessman died, Californians have gone to war at the ballot box over the death penalty. This time, the choice is to speed it up, or abolish it altogether.

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At the time, which was in the late 1950s, Caryl Chessman was probably one of the most famous people in the world, and he was famous from behind the bars on Death Row in San Quentin.

That’s true. He was a worldwide phenomenon. He had written four books from his cell, from cell 2455, they’d been translated into 10 or 11 languages, and he was a celebrity.  He was as also a figure of great public controversy, and his case was regularly on the front pages of the LA Times.

He was the last man to be executed in California for a crime that didn’t involve killing anybody. Was that the genesis of the controversy in his case?

In part. He was convicted on two counts of bodily harm during the course of a kidnapping, and the laws at the time, which were known as Little Lindbergh laws – those two counts carried the death penalty. These were sexual assaults that took place in the Hollywood Hills. He abducted and sexually assaulted two women, and he received the death penalty.

California’s Little Lindbergh law was repealed when he was on death row, but it did not retroactively commute his sentence from death to life without parole.

What kind of a man was Caryl Chessman?

He was quite a challenge to everybody who interacted with him. He was more or less uneducated, spent most of his early life in juvenile detention facilities.

He was somewhat attractive. He ended up having a very, very large worldwide female fan base, including women who were asking to marry him. And he was fairly intelligent; his IQ was in the high 120s. And he had this sort of animal energy that came through in his writings. His books came out a few years before “In Cold Blood,” by Truman Capote, but it was sort of the same phenomenon, this idea that you could hear the voice of a criminal behind bars. And that was absolutely fascinating, very compelling to the public.

Why did you decide to write a play about him?

B Street Theatre’s artistic director Buck Busfield and I sat down once and he said he’d like to come up with a moment in California history that needed to be examined again that would be dramatic, and I recalled this incident. And then there was this opportunity presented by the California State Library, which had Chessman’s actual files, and a few years ago, his files, for the first time, were made available to the public. From there I was able to construct the story.

Then the conversation of the rest of the characters is based to a large extent on historical documents as well, including Pat Brown’s memoir, where he talks about his experience with this case in great depth, and Bernice Brown’s oral history interview at UC Berkeley. 

There are five cast members in this play. One of them is Caryl Chessman. The other four are all members of the Brown family. There’s Pat Brown, the governor; Bernice Brown, his wife; there’s Jerry Brown, his son, who is about 20 years old, who would go on to become governor himself; and there’s his youngest daughter, Kathleen Brown.

The play looks at the death penalty controversy through the eyes of each member of the family. I think that’s what I found very fascinating as I was reading through Bernice Brown’s recollections at the time. Jerry in 1960, at this moment where it looks like all options for Chessman have been closed off, and Pat Brown has finally decided that he’d done all that he can do, and he was going to let the execution take place. Pat Brown was alone in the house and he writes later that he took a phone call from Jerry. Jerry was a student at that point, he’s out of the seminary and he’s now at Berkeley. He calls him and they discuss the case, and nobody knows of course what they said to each other.

But that evening, after that call concluded, Brown reversed course and decided he would go to the Legislature and seek a change in California’s death penalty law, and he gave Chessman a reprieve so that he could pursue that option.

Ultimately of course that reprieve couldn’t last, and the commutation wasn’t possible.

Right. It was a temporary reprieve, and Gov. Brown was unsuccessful in persuading the Legislature to change the law, and he lost in committee. It’s important in the context — this might have been one of the first defeats Brown had suffered in the Legislature. He was riding high, he’d been elected in 1958, and he had had a breathtaking year in 1959, one success in the Legislature after another. And this was the first roadblock.

He made it very clear what his personal views were on the death penalty, and he also made very clear the matter of his Catholic faith. But he had also expressed a deep love for the law. Pat Brown had grown up as a prosecutor, a D.A., attorney general and now the governor. And he really felt that the legal system was the glue that held California together, and he was very conscious of his legal limitations and his duty to the people to follow the law. If he couldn’t change it, he had to follow it.

The play actually attempts to answer the question, how does the experience of the Chessman case change the relationship between Gov. Brown and his son? Of course, I did a large amount of research. For example, back in the ’70s, Jerry talked a bit about his early life, and I have a lot of early Jerry Brown interviews. I also found a letter Jerry Brown wrote to one of his uncles while he was in the seminary. It was handwritten, beautiful letter that you can just feel; here’s a 19-year-old talking to somebody in the family, just pouring his heart out. I felt I could really hear the voice of these family members.

Gov. Pat Brown had said that Caryl Chessman was a nasty, arrogant and unrepentant man, but his trial was so badly tainted that his sentence should have been commuted by someone — and he thought that someone was himself.

You have somebody who’s not been to law school, who’s not even completed high school, and he is conducting his own legal defense in a capital trial. His victims include two women, and the jury is 11 women and one man. And he cross-examined his victims on the witness stand, which is just really astounding when you think of it.

Then also there were longstanding, very lengthy fights over the quality of the transcript of the case. Chessman was able to get eight different stays, and he fought up the Supreme Court.

Do you think he was guilty?

I don’t know. I have read the statements, the cross-examination of witnesses, and I find it very, very compelling. I would probably tend to side with Pat Brown and think he’s almost certainly guilty of the crimes.

As you say, he was an international phenomenon, and people wrote songs, wrote ballads about him.

There was a Ronnie Hawkins song called “The Ballad of Caryl Chessman,” and Merle Haggard was inspired to write a song that mentioned Chessman as well.  We use “The Ballad of Caryl Chessman” in the middle of the play, in part to illustrate to the audience that Chessman has become cultural figure in some ways.

Chessman’s case inspired people all over the world to become active in their own countries about the death penalty. You’ll see articles about him in German magazines and Italian newspapers to this day.

Over the 50-plus years since Caryl Chessman was executed, Californians have gone to the ballot box several times to decide on whether or not to keep the death penalty. The last execution in California was in 2006; he was on death row for almost twice as long as Chessman.

What I found compelling when I was reading Pat Brown’s statements about the case and about his legislation is that Gov. Pat Brown attempted to make a very deep and wide case to the Legislature and to the public outlining his concerns about the death penalty and why he thought it should be changed. He is one of the last politicians in either party to attempt to persuade the public one way or the other. He was not successful, and the issue remains divisive to this day.

When you were working on your play, did you realize there would be two ballot issues in November, right after your play opens, about the death penalty in California?

No, that process started after we were underway with the play. It’s interesting — there are the two measures on the ballot, one to abolish the death penalty and replace it with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, and one to speed up the death penalty and accelerate its implementation.

That is sort of a repeat of what we were seeing in the 1960s, the sharply divided approaches to the problem. That makes the story of the Brown family and Pat Brown’s struggles to sort out the Chessman case very current, very compelling, I think.

This sounds less like a play about a crime than a play about a family.

I think it’s both. And the courtroom drama is compelling; the courtroom scenes are based upon the transcripts that survive. But I think the real drama and the emotion of the play come from the effect that the case has on the family, and how it shapes the relationship of family members to each other.

This has been something that’s also injected itself into the presidential campaign. In the primary, Gov. Jeb Bush reflected upon how difficult it was for him personally to weigh in on death penalty cases that came to him. And Gov. Kaine, also a Catholic like Pat Brown, has had to make decisions in death penalty cases. And it’s just been a gut-wrenching experience for chief executives. Even some who are philosophically supportive of the death penalty experience an emotional toll when they are forced to confront the case.

Has California been especially at the forefront of this death penalty debate, and if so, why?

What Pat Brown was thinking at the time was that California was supposed to be a model for the country, that the nation’s center of gravity was shifting from the east coast to the west coast, and in so many areas, California was leading the nation. This was the one area where he felt California was falling behind, that other parts of the country had decided to move against the death penalty but California was moving in the other direction.

You’re a California native — had you heard about this case growing up?

I never heard about it growing up. I checked with my mother after I started the project and she remembered it. We’re hearing form people through our Facebook page and our website every day, from people who were touched this case and who remember it, either personally or remember their parents being very engaged. And we have had people come to readings who were grandchildren of the judges involved. Chessman had a lasting impact on a lot of people, and the controversy for some people was quite searing.

When people leave your play, what do you want them to come away thinking and feeling?

What I’m trying to bring to the fore is the conversation that was very deep and thoughtful that the Chessman case sparked back in the day. So when I hear from people who have seen the show, they’ll say, “On the way home we debated every bit of it in the car, and at every level.” I think that’s what I’m hoping that we achieve with the play, is to spark thoughtful debate.

And to be maybe more sensitive to the human impact on the elected official and his family.

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