“CHESSMAN” PLAY DEPICTS POLARIZING DEATH ROW CASE IN CALIFORNIA
A new play about an incredibly controversial death penalty case in California in the 1960s—”Chessman”—opened last week at Sacramento’s B Street Theatre.
For more than 12 years, California death row inmate Caryl Chessman fought desperately to save himself from the gas chamber. Chessman’s case was extremely controversial because he had not been convicted of murder. Instead, at 27-years-old, Chessman, also called the “Red Light Bandit” was convicted of a a number of robberies and rapes in Los Angeles. Many important voices, including Eleanor Roosevelt and the Vatican newspaper, called for Chessman to be spared.
On Feb 18, 1960, 21-year-old UC Berkeley student Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown, Jr. dialed his father, then-Governor Pat Brown, and asked for a 60-day stay of execution for Chessman, the night before the man’s scheduled execution. The younger Brown also urged his father to propose a bill to end the death penalty in California. Even though both men knew the measure had an extremely low chance of success, Pat Brown introduced a bill to abolish capital punishment.
The elder Brown’s bill was rejected by state legislators, and Chessman was put to death two-and-a-half months later.
Although playwright says the timing of the play was not purposeful, it is serendipitous, in that next month, California voters will choose between two competing death penalty-related ballot initiatives. The first, Proposition 62, would abolish capital punishment in the state. The second, Prop. 66, would speed up the death penalty appeals process executions.
The Sacramento Bee’s Alexei Koseff has more on the play, which tells the Chessman story from the perspectives of the condemned man, and four members of the Brown family—Pat, his wife Bernice, Jerry, and Pat’s daughter, Kathleen. Here’s a clip:
The controversy also came at a relative highwater mark for opposition to the death penalty, when Americans were about evenly split on the issue. This allowed Pat Brown to openly grapple over Chessman’s fate without committing “automatic political suicide,” the biographer Rarick noted at a recent panel on the case.
“He always looked for the best with everybody. He was inclined toward mercy, but inclined toward upholding the law,” Rarick said.
Because Chessman had prior felonies, Pat Brown could not commute his sentence without the approval of the California Supreme Court, which voted 4-3 to uphold the conviction. Chessman was going to die.
But the night before the execution was scheduled to proceed, Jerry Brown called his father urging him to grant a 60-day reprieve and pursue a moratorium on the death penalty in the Legislature. As Pat recounted in “Public Justice, Private Mercy,” he believed there was not “one chance in a thousand” that lawmakers would act.
“Then Jerry said, “But Dad, if you were a doctor and there was one chance in a thousand of saving a patient’s life, wouldn’t you take it?’
“I thought about that for a moment. You’re right, I finally said. I’ll do it.”
For his decision, Pat Brown received a slew of negative responses – and a 16-page letter from a “surprised and grateful” Chessman.
In an interview with the LA Times’ Patt Morrison, “Chessman” playwright Joseph Rodota discusses the case’s backstory and context, as well as his inspiration for the play, and the impact of the case on the Browns “and how it shapes the relationship of family members to each other.” Here are some clips:
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.
[Morrison:] 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.
KALIEF BROWDER’S MOTHER, VENIDA, DIES OF A “BROKEN HEART”
On Friday night, at 63 years old, Venida Browder, the mother of Kalief Browder, died of complications from a heart attack. The Browders’ attorney, Paul Prestia, says he believes Venida “died of a broken heart.”
In 2010, Kalief was arrested after being accused of stealing a backpack. The Browders’ inability to post $3,000 bail led to a harrowing three-year stint at Rikers Island for Kalief.
Kalief was never tried during those three years—two of which he spent in solitary confinement.
Prosecutors ultimately dropped the charges against Browder in 2013. For the next two years following his release, Kalief struggled with mental illness stemming from the adverse effects of prolonged isolation and other trauma he experienced behind bars. For periods, it appeared that Browder was restarting his life, but on several occasions he tried to kill himself. Last June, at 22 years old, Browder finally succeeded.
The New Yorker’s Jennifer Gonnerman, who has been following and reporting on Browder’s devastating story since October 2014, also wrote about Venida and the work she did to honor Kalief’s life and legacy through activism, before her own untimely death. Here’s a small clip:
In the following months, Venida, who was fairly shy, became much more outspoken. Although she had serious health problems, she travelled to Washington, D.C., in July of 2015 to attend a press conference for “Kalief’s Law,” a bill intended to improve the treatment of young people in prison. She joined the advisory board of an organization called Stop Solitary for Kids. She spoke to reporters. In January of 2016, she participated in the American Justice Summit at John Jay College. Paul Prestia, who represented her in a wrongful-death claim against New York City, remembers going with her to a speaking event at the New School last April. Before she stepped onstage, he said that she seemed very nervous. But then she spoke for forty-five minutes about what she and Kalief had endured. “She got up there, and I was like, Wow!” he said. “She blew me away.”
“She could have stayed back, but the fact she was so involved helped that movement,” Prestia said. Kalief’s story—and his mother’s voice—became an important part of the public debates over solitary confinement, youth incarceration, court delays, speedy-trial laws, and conditions on Rikers.
As part of an upcoming video series for The Marshall Project, Venida tells her son’s story—from his arrest to his release and, later, his death. Venida found Kalief after he had hanged himself from a second floor window of their family home. “I miss my son,” Venida said. “I miss him so much.”
Kalief’s story has garnered a ton of media attention and set in motion efforts to reform the notorious NY jail. Earlier this month, Rapper Jay-Z announced that he is producing a six-part docu-series called, “Time: The Kalief Browder Story,” scheduled for release this upcoming January on Spike TV.