Cast & Crew
Robert J. May
J. Miller Leavy
In a courtroom, journalist Quentin Reynolds talks about what has become "the most litigated capital case in the history of American law": On 30 April 1948, Caryl Whittier Chessman is brought to trial in Los Angeles on charges of kidnapping, rape, oral copulation, robbery and grand theft. Reynolds notes that, because California law requires the death penalty when kidnapping victims were physically harmed, on 21 May 1948 Chessman is sentenced to death after a jury, composed of eleven women and one man, finds him guilty. Chessman then begins an eleven-and-a-half-year battle to stay alive while enduring the punishment of a living death. From his cell on death row in San Quentin prison, Chessman, insisting he is innocent of the kidnapping and rape charges, makes numerous appeals and his execution is stayed seven times, but finally he faces the execution date of 19 February 1960. Reynolds reviews the charges against Chessman: On 19 January 1948, in the hills above Pasadena, Regina Johnson is stopped and raped by the driver of a car with a red spotlight; three days later in the San Fernando Valley seventeen-year-old Mary Alice Meza is forced, at gunpoint, to submit sexually to a man driving an identical car; the following day a clothing store is robbed. Robert J. May, a sergeant with the Los Angeles Police Department, spots the wanted car, pursues it and arrests Chessman. Deputy District Attorney J. Miller Leavy is assigned to prosecute Chessman, who, after early assistance from deputy public defender Al Matthews, insists on conducting his own defense. Ruth Meza then relates: After her daughter is cross-examined by Chessman, she becomes withdrawn and is committed to Camarillo State Hospital in October 1949. The interrogation of the young girl, who was a virgin, also deeply offends juror Mrs. Jesse Wakefield, who states that Chessman got what he deserved. The judge, Charles W. Fricke, who died in early 1958, is criticized by defender Matthews for having created an atmosphere of hostility in the courtroom and not allowing Chessman to leave his chair or approach a witness--"a shocking example of what a judge can do to a man presumed to be innocent." After the sentencing, Reynolds relates, Chessman prepares many multi-page briefs, petitions and motions from prison, in addition to writing the book Cell 2455 Death Row: A Condemned Man's Own Story , which is later translated into twelve languages. In 1948, attorney Rosalie Asher agrees to represent Chessman as she believes that he has been denied a fair trial. She questions the propriety of Fricke having a friend transcribe the shorthand notes of the trial's court reporter, who died in June 1948. Frank Hanna, a current court reporter, compares the notes and transcription and finds several omissions. Asher insists that Chessman has not been simply grabbing at technicalities, but has followed the processes available under law through state and federal courts to the Supreme Court. Prosecutor Leavy claims that Chessman has accused him of fraud, but that the claim has not been upheld. Dr. William Graves, a physician at San Quentin, explains that he has known Chessman for eight years and that Chessman has undergone self-analysis and is capable of making a very considerable contribution to society. Reynolds then tells of Chessman growing up poor with a paralyzed mother in Glendale, California, and how he started a life of crime at sixteen. Sentenced to Chino prison for robbery and assault, he escaped and after committing more robberies was sent to San Quentin, from which he was paroled in late 1947. Psychiatrist Isidore Ziferstein, who interviewed Chessman in 1957 and 1958, states his belief that Chessman does not have the personality of a rapist, and that he had a good marriage, but was a violent robber. Reynolds then reads from Cell 2455 Death Row and from Chessman's second book, The Face of Justice . Chessman, an admitted agnostic, is seen in parts of his daily routine in San Quentin, meeting with lawyers, typing and studying law. In staged sequences, other death row prisoners are seen and one is prepared for execution and walks "the last mile." In a summation, juror Mrs. Wakefield states that her verdict would be the same today and prosecutor Leavy still feels that the death penalty was correct. Physician Graves is appalled at the thought of taking a human life eleven-and-a-half years after sentencing. Over shots of the San Quentin gas chamber Reynolds argues, "Which was greater--the wrong for which you die or the wrong which men do unto themselves when they force their fellow man to endure a horror during life that in the end even death itself could not trump?"
Robert J. May
J. Miller Leavy
Mrs. Jesse Wakefield
Dr. William Graves
Dr. Isidore Ziferstein
The credits include the following statement: "Special acknowledgment is given to Richard A. McGee, Director, California Department of Corrections, for allowing the filming of prison sequences at San Quentin Prison and the California Institution for Men in Chino." The Daily Variety review stated that Leslie Stevens' and Stanley Colbert's Daystar and Vega companies were credited for "invaluable assistance in the preparation." These credits were not included in the print viewed. The film bears a "Copyright 1960 Terrence W. Cooney" statement, but it was not registered with the Copyright Office. Contemporary sources state that Cooney was a Sherman Oaks, CA, attorney who financed the film. Many of the events described in the film are narrated by the various people involved in Chessman's case.
According to a February 22, 1960 Hollywood Reporter news item, Justice and Caryl Chessman was rushed into theaters across the country, beginning February 19, 1960, only a few days after Chessman had received another stay of execution. A February 23, 1960 Hollywood Citizen-News editorial reported that, according to the producers, the film would be shown shortly in 14,000 U.S. theaters plus others in Europe and South America. The same editorial quoted Cooney as saying that the film cost $50,000. The newspaper questioned the film's objectivity and felt it should be labeled as propaganda because Chessman was portrayed as a martyr and the victim of injustice. When the film opened in New York early in March 1960, the New York Times reviewer found it less objectionable: "The film makers...deserve credit for presenting their material objectively and attempting to avoid sensationalism. However, this objectivity leaves the narrative's purpose open to question. The film is too short to attempt a comprehensive examination of the case, and many of its basic issues are evaded or minimized."
While Chessman is seen in the film, he is not heard. A February 12, 1960 Daily Variety news item reported that writer Jules Maitland and cameraman David Shore had been given permission to film in San Quentin on the understanding that the footage was for a CBS news documentary. CBS later denied any involvement in the project. According to the February 22, 1960 Hollywood Reporter news item, Cooney originally did produce the picture for television, but decided to release it theatrically after Chessman's stay. District Attorney J. Miller Leavy sued the film's producers and distributor for $1,000,000 on the grounds that he was led to believe that he was appearing in a television documentary and also because only fragments of his filmed statements were used, thereby distorting the facts. Leavy was eventually awarded $50,000.
Another lawsuit involved Jerry Purcell and William P. Hunter, officers of Barjul International Pictures, Inc., which claimed that Purcell and Hunter had acquired distribution rights to the film for themselves after they had entered negotiations on behalf of Barjul. The $1,500,000 suit claimed that Purcell and Hunter had then organized Sterling World Distribution Corp. to handle the film. The resolution of this suit has not been determined. When the film played in New York, it was released by Bentley Films, Inc.
Caryl Whittier Chessman was executed in San Quentin's gas chamber on May 2, 1960. A fictionalized version of Chessman's life was presented in the 1955 film Cell 2455, Death Row. Actor Alan Alda portrayed Chessman in the 1977 NBC television film Kill Me if You Can, directed by Buzz Kulik.