San Quentin Prison has housed California's only death row for male inmates since 1937. (Michael Glogowski-Walldorf: Flickr)
In February of 1960, Gov. Pat Brown had a tough decision to make. His office was being flooded by clemency appeals for death row inmate Carryl Chessman. Convicted of kidnapping, robbery and rape, Chessman maintained his innocence.
“Well I don’t know if I ever had hope,” Chessman said in an interview then. “It’s like a soldier out in the field, the battlefield. I don’t know if he has hope or not; he just keeps slogging forward as much as possible and then waits for the results.”
Letters and calls poured into the governor’s office on Chessman’s behalf. As Pat Brown recalled in a 1986 KQED documentary, the most urgent appeal to stop the execution came from his own family.
“My son asked me to do it and said ‘Dad, this man didn’t kill anybody. I think you should commute it to life imprisonment,’” Brown said.
In 1972 the California Supreme Court declared the state’s death penalty unconstitutional. For the next 20 years, capital punishment bounced back and forth, with voters restoring it and then the courts striking it down.
His son Jerry Brown, who had been studying for the priesthood, apparently made a persuasive case. “I says ‘I’ll do it,’” Brown said. “And I did it. And they damn near executed me!”
The governor’s 60-day reprieve didn’t save Chessman, who died in the San Quentin gas chamber two months later. But his case helped ignite international opposition to capital punishment. Continue reading