Growing up during the time period of Caryl Chessman's incarceration and execution, I remember him quite well. In fact, I was fascinated by his intellect and this story. He wrote four books during his time at San Quentin, including his best selling memoir, "Cell 2455, Death Row." It was the talk of the nation and many prominent people from varying avenues of life urged the then Governor of California, Pat Brown, to grant him clemency!
Born in Michigan on May 27, 1921, the Chessman family relocated to Glendale, California in 1922. Coming into his adolescent years when the Great Depression hit, the young Carol (his real name) was in constant trouble during that time and was in and out of reform schools throughout his teenage years. Involvement with local gangs of young men upon his release, he continued his criminal ways throughout the 1930's and 1940's. It seems he was particularly fond of stealing cars! When a string of robberies began occurring in the Los Angeles area in early 1948, the incidents began as simple hold-up type robberies, however, compounding the crimes and confounding the police was a sudden change in method. The thief, or thieves, had also stolen a car and had, on two occasions, resorted to sexual assault. Were the police looking for two different criminals or was it only one who was at large?
News media dubbed the thief "The Red-Light Bandit" because the car that was forcing people to pull over just before they were robbed and/or assaulted used a flashing red light similar to that used in police vehicles. People thought they were being stopped by police and they simply pulled over! Some time during this string of robberies, Chessman had been seen driving a car similar to the description given of a 1946 or 1947 tan or gray Ford coupe that had been stolen and was being used in the crimes. Police spotted what they thought was the right car, pursued and arrested Chessman and another man on the 18 counts of robbery, kidnapping and rape! After 72 hours in custody, Chessman confessed to the crimes but later recanted indicating he was beaten and tortured by police. He was, however,also positively identified by both women!
A petty thief and low-level criminal, Chessman had never been involved in anything having to do with sexual assault or kidnapping. Outside of the alleged torture by police, he had actually proclaimed his innocence from the moment of his arrest thinking he could never be found guilty of anything having to do with kidnapping and rape! It was simply not his M.O. and he was depicted, in the film, as being insulted by the charges! After a three week trial, during which he defended himself, Caryl Chessman was found guilty on 17 of the 18 counts and was sentenced to death! After successfully arguing on appeal, he subsequently won 8 stays of execution before being led to his death in the gas chamber on May 2, 1960. The way the laws were applied at that time accounted for the death sentence. The court ruled that dragging one of the women only 20 some odd feet away from her car was sufficient to qualify for kidnapping under the "Little Lindbergh Law." This also made the two incidents Capital offenses to which the death penalty could be applied. Charges made against his "accomplice" were thrown out of court and he, alone, was incarcerated!
Alan Alda,still in harness playing "Hawkeye Pierce" in the hit TV series,M*A*S*H* stars in this 1977 TV movie. Nominated for a Prime-Time Emmy for his remarkable portrayal of Chessman, Alda, along with Talia Shire, John Hillerman, Barnard Hughes and John Randolph were among the supporting players that brought this film to life. Talia Shire did an admirable job as the sympathetic attorney who helped handle Chessman's many appeals. Chessman did the research and wrote all of those appeals while Ms. Asher acted on his behalf within the legal system. The film shows the alleged "crimes" along with any similarities to Chessman as well as the mindset of police at the time but the real action focuses on the trial and the subsequent legal remedies open to Chessman as he traveled toward his execution date. The arrogant Caryl Chessman was, in the final analysis, a brilliant man who studied and mastered the law during his long incarceration. It is most unfortunate he didn't use that fine mind in other pursuits prior to this. I was thoroughly convinced of his innocence and so were many, many other people but nothing and no one seemed to be able to sway the court.
I cannot fathom why it is not available on DVD or even the old VHS format. I have never seen it being aired on any TV or Cable station after that time period but I'm almost certain it must have been. There is another, more recent, film by the same title but it has nothing whatsoever to do with this story. I can but highly recommend that if you ever have to opportunity to see this one, do so. Perhaps someone you know recorded it when it aired! If they did, be sure and watch it...It is riveting.