(Editor’s Note: A reading of Joe Rodota’s play Chessman, a work in progress, was performed at the B Street Theatre in Sacramento this weekend.)

Crime never ceases to intrigue, especially its punishment.  Half a century ago California executed convicted felons on a regular basis at San Quentin’s gas chamber.  That placed capital punishment at the core of the debate on crime and punishment in this state and the nation.

Today capital punishment is an intellectual issue; the last execution in California was nine years ago.    But long time capital figure Joseph Rodota brings the issue back to life with a new play he has written called “Chessman”, which deals with the controversial 1960 execution of Caryl Chessman.  It was an event that absorbed all the political oxygen in California at the time.

Rodota tells the story through the lives of five people: Chessman himself, and Gov. Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, his strong willed wife Bernice Brown, their young daughter Kathleen Brown, and, importantly, their son Jerry Brown.  It is fascinating look at how one family deals both with a political and a moral crisis, for much as he hated it, Pat Brown had Chessman’s life in his hands, and the moral battle over whether to spare his life was fought within Brown’s own family.

Rodota’s play, in two acts, does this by flashbacks to the 1948 trial that found Chessman guilty interspersed with conflicts within the governor’s own family on how to proceed as the execution neared.

The facts on Caryl Chessman were pretty straight forward.  By the time he was 25 he had a long rap sheet and several felony convictions.  In 1948, he was arrested as the Los Angeles “Red Light Bandit,” who used a red light to pull over cars and then robbed the drivers.  But in two cases, he sexually assaulted young women.

That brought his crimes under California’s “Little Lindbergh Law”, named for the 1930s kidnapping of famed flyer Charles Lindbergh’s son.  Kidnapping with bodily harm was a death penalty offence, and that put Chessman on Death Row, where he had been for a decade when Pat Brown became California governor in 1959.

By early 1960, Chessman’s numerous appeals seemed to have run out and his execution date was scheduled.  But in the 12 years he had spent on Death Row he had become a famed author; his autobiography Cell 2455, Death Row was a runaway best seller; he graced the cover of TIME magazine.

Chessman also came to symbolize the then bitterly divisive issue of the death penalty, of which Gov. Pat Brown was a well known opponent.  His case had attracted a worldwide audience of everyone from Albert Schweitzer to Eleanor Roosevelt.

As the play makes clear, had Brown been able to do so, there’s no doubt he would have commuted Chessman’s death sentence to a life term.  But he could not because the governor could not commute the death sentence of a felon with multiple convictions without the approval of the California Supreme Court – Chessman had five felony convictions – and the Court had refused to allow it.

In the play we see the anguish that Pat Brown goes through, and anguish is a good word.  Rodota, who served two California governors and was Gov. Pete Wilson’s cabinet secretary, has a good feel for how California government works and the limitations on a governor’s power as well as the pressures a governor faces.

Much of the play tracks the Pat Brown biography, California Rising, by journalist Ethan Rarick, who titles his chapter on the Chessman case “Anguish.”  Rodota uses actual transcripts and historical documents to illuminate this anguish and in doing so he presents a play with historical accuracy that also examines the Brown family very personal conflicts.  Rodota said one of his main sources was Bernice Brown’s oral history dictated years later.

The play’s subplot is the limits of political power in our system.  Gov. Brown cannot commute Chessman’s death sentence to life imprisonment because he needs four votes on the Supreme Court, and he has only three.  In the most compelling part of the play, Jerry Brown, the governor’s 23-year-old son just departed from the seminary and overflowing with classical scholarship and moral indignation, convinces his father to provide Chessman one last reprieve so the legislature might repeal the death penalty.

In the weakest part of the play, the legislature is portrayed as uncaring boobs who will not repeal the death penalty.  In fact, the legislature had considered the death penalty over many years and the Senate Judiciary hearing on Chessman ran 16 hours with expert witnesses from both sides.  Interestingly, a transcript of the Senate hearing still exists, showing that the Senators gave this case a thorough vetting.   The play is still undergoing revisions and is only at the “reading” stage, so perhaps the author will enhance the section on the legislature’s actions.

The legislative leadership had made it clear they would not abolish the death penalty in the hysteria that surrounded the Chessman case.  According to Unruh biographer Lou Cannon, powerful Assembly Speaker Jess Unruh was outraged that Gov. Brown tossed this hot potato into the legislature’s lap, knowing they would not act.  It was the beginning of a rift between Speaker Unruh and Gov. Brown, California’s two most powerful Democrats, that eventually led to political defeat for both of them.

Pat Brown paid a tremendous political price for the Chessman case, as he admitted to Cannon in later interview.  It made him look weak and vacillating.  The newly elected Kennedy Administration in 1961 ignored Brown and elevated Unruh.  In 1966, Brown was portrayed as a bumbling incompetent by the forces of Ronald Reagan who ousted him from office by a million votes.

In Rodota’s play we see a much more sympathetic Brown, who knows he cannot spare this arrogant and irritating man’s life, although he wants to.  And in the end Pat Brown managed to earn the enmity of those who were for the death penalty and those who are against it.  Rodota, with his own political background, might consider adding a little more on the political context of this crisis; while Chessman was quickly forgotten after 1960, the conflict lingered as a stain on Pat Brown’s image from which he never really did completely recover.

On May 2, 1960, Chessman was strapped into the metal chair within an old diving bell that was San Quentin’s gas chamber, a bag of cyanide capsules were lowered into a vat of sulfuric acid, and Chessman was dead within minutes.  The play effectively shows these final minutes.

Perhaps the great tragedy of the Chessman-Brown dance of death is that it never had to happen.  Brown had commuted two death sentences under the Little Lindbergh Law, but Chessman refused to admit his guilt despite the strong evidence and so he left Gov. Brown no out.  As the play shows, Gov. Brown was trapped in circumstances beyond his control, knowing full well that his search for mercy for Chessman would deeply damage his political career, as indeed it did.