During his twelve years on death row, Chessman became a cause celebre. His case won media exposure as he presented himself not only as an innocent man but also as one rehabilitated from his prior life of crime. His case attracted interest and support among leading criminologists, liberal intellectuals, and ordinary citizens, many of whom engaged in protests to halt Chessman's execution.
Among the many notables who supported Chessman’s fight against execution were former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, writers Aldous Huxley, Ray Bradbury, William Inge, Norman Mailer, Dwight MacDonald, Christopher Isherwood, Carey McWilliams and Evangelist preacher Billy Graham.
Wenzell Brown, Chairman of the American Writers Committee wrote, “Chessman is guilty of other crimes, to wit, robbing bordellos and gambling dens operating in California. However, justice cannot be served by convicting a man of one crime because he committed another.”
Chessman’s own talent for writing convinced many that a prisoner, even one guilty of murder, could make a great contribution to society and its understanding of the criminal mind.
'Cell 2455 Death Row' (1954), Chessman’s first book, was an autobiographical account of his own life in prison. By producing this work Chessman demonstrated to his supporters and critics that he was a talented intellectual and the kind of prisoner who exemplified the notion of the rehabilitative ideal.
Over the years more books followed such as 'Trial by Ordeal' and 'The Kid Was A Killer'. But it was in his last book 'The Face of Justice', completed in secret and just hours before his death, that he commented on why he was likely to go to the gas chamber. He wrote that to the authorities he represented, "A justice-mocking, lawless legal Houdini and agent provocateur assigned by the Devil (or was it the Communists?) to foment mistrust of lawfully constituted Authority."
In 'Justice' Chessman wrote about the conditions of the penal system of the time. The book was well received and revealed that he was a great thinker and writer. Actually writing the book in prison was an achievement in itself due to the fact that Chessman’s cell was constantly checked. In order to hide his daily prose he would transcribe his long drafts into shorthand and dispose of the original draft down the toilet. The shorthand pieces were then camouflaged with legal notions so that the wardens dismissed them.
All four of Chessman's books are now out of print, and the unpublished writings that were known to exist at the time of his death have never seen the light of day.
But at the time Chessman’s lawyer, George T. Davis, believed that the media exposure of the case had brought the issue of capital punishment to the forefront of American politics.
Despite Chessman’s protestations of his innocence, his own memoirs, somewhat ironically testified to his criminal personality. It was clear from a young age he seemed to be on a collision course with prison.
Davis himself, although declaring a fondness for Chessman, also admitted that his client was hard-headed and unyielding. Unfortunately for Chessman this attitude was often interpreted as arrogance and he was depicted by the media as a ‘monster’ or ‘psychopathic wild beast’.
If anything, Chessman was more likely to be an intelligent sociopath who had difficulty feeling empathy for others. Whatever the view of him, he had become an embarrassment to the authorities and for some, in an ultraconservative era, had undermined the judicial system.
Davis himself is not entirely sure why the authorities decided to carry out the death sentence after eight stays of execution over twelve years. He concedes that Chessman’s languishing on death row, gaining celebrity status and media exposure, was a source of embarrassment to the government.
"The state of California's attitude then is like President Bush's now," said the 94-year-old Davis forty-one years later. "That is, 'well, he got his trial, so let's carry out the sentence'. No matter what. Expediency is all they were interested in."
Chessman had to deal with the psychological impact of preparing himself for death on eight separate occasions. He would take the ‘dead man’s walk’ to the gas chamber that was housed just below his cellblock. Then at the eleventh-hour a stay of execution would be approved and Chessman would take the elevator back up to his cell. It is difficult to think of many people being able to survive such a continuous ordeal without breaking down.
However, on 2 May 1960, time finally ran out for Chessman. At 10 a.m., Chessman’s execution was given the go ahead. Davis had anticipated that the petition for leniency would be rejected and had arranged for a cab to take him to the US District Court by 9 a.m. This was the cliff-hanger of all cliff-hangers for at precisely 10 a.m. the cyanide pellets were to be dropped into the gas chamber.
What followed was the kind of nail biting scene expected in a Hitchcock thriller as Davis had to rush over to the district court several blocks away and re-present his petition after the State Supreme Court had rejected it by 4 to 3.
With astute foresight, Davis had sent the 15 page document to the Judge the day before. Unfortunately the Judge had still not read it.
Standing in the courtroom, with one eye on the clock and the other watching him carefully leaf through the thick manuscript, the opportunity to save Chessman’s life was hanging on a thread. With only one minute before the cyanide pellets were to be dropped, the Judge finally agreed to a stay of execution.
All it needed was a direct call to the chamber phone to stop the execution. Whether it was a planned operation by the State or a genuine case of bad luck and bad timing, the secretary who was to make the call, misdialled.
By the time she got through to the warden, the pellets had been dropped and any attempt to open the chamber or stop the process may have endangered other people. After twelve years maintaining his innocence on Death Row, Caryl Chessman was finally executed at San Quentin prison.