A Playwright Revisits the Execution of Chessman

The case of Caryl Chessman reverberated throughout the US and around the world, as California’s 12-year battle to execute him was fought in the courts and in the media.

“Only someone who lived through it can fully appreciate the heightened emotions of that period,” former California Governor Pat Brown said in his book, “Public Justice, Private Mercy.” He was referring to the case of Caryl Chessman, sentenced to death in 1948 not for murder, but for the abduction and rape of two women in Los Angeles in 1948.

The case, with its multiple canceled executions, its appeals, and its stays over a 12-year period, combined with the fact that Chessman wrote four books while he was on death row, including a memoir that was made into a movie in 1955, reverberated not just throughout the country, but throughout the world.

Brown had issued a 60-day stay of Chessman’s execution in February 1960, but when that stay ran out, Chessman was executed in May of that year. And, although Brown was reelected in 1962, the case continued to haunt him. “The shadow of the gas chamber and Caryl Chessman hung over my last years,” he wrote in “Public Justice, Private Mercy.”

Now, a California man has written a play about the final six months of Chessman’s 12-year fight for clemency that premiered last night and will run through next Thursday, October 20, in Sacramento.

Joseph Rodota says he wrote “Chessman” because “it is a great story that needs to be told.” He focuses on Gov. Brown, his wife Bernice, and two of their children, now-Governor Jerry Brown, and Kathleen Brown, in those days leading up to the execution. He spent a summer reading and researching the case, and was particularly struck by an oral history of members of the Brown family, and their recollections of how the case affected them personally.

“The research materials made it possible for me to explore the issue from a unique place, through the eyes of the person who had to make the decision,” Rodota says. Pat Brown was an outspoken opponent of the death penalty, and Rodota portrays the “challenges he faced in balancing his faith against the duties of his office.”

Rodota also found himself fascinated by Bernice Brown, whose oral history he found “riveting, descriptive, personal . . . . I came away understanding why Pat had her on such a pedestal.”

Theater-goers will also get a sense of the 20-year-old Jerry Brown, a young man who had recently left the Jesuit seminary, where he’d been studying to be a priest, and hear how he felt about the pending execution of Chessman.

Rodota hopes his play will give rise to the same debates that the actual case engendered at the time. “I try to bring out as much as possible his [Chessman’s] legal writings, his courtroom antics, his essays, his letters, but he is a very complicated figure,” Rodota says. “I try to show the audience why he was so divisive, why so many were either inspired or reviled by him.”

As San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen wrote about Chessman at the time, he fought “a fantastic fight against fantastic odds.”

You can buy tickets, or obtain additional information about “Chessman” here.

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