Capitol Alert

‘Chessman’ explores crucial moment for Brown family, California death penalty

'Chessman' director on challenge of casting Jerry Brown

The new play "Chessman" features former Gov. Pat Brown and current Gov. Jerry Brown as characters. Director Buck Busfield discusses the challenge of casting famous historical figures.
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The new play "Chessman" features former Gov. Pat Brown and current Gov. Jerry Brown as characters. Director Buck Busfield discusses the challenge of casting famous historical figures.

Buck Busfield is pondering the finer points of one of the most important phone calls in California political history.

It was Feb. 18, 1960, the eve of the long-delayed execution of Caryl Chessman. A 21-year-old Jerry Brown, recently departed from the seminary and now a student at UC Berkeley, called his father, then-Gov. Pat Brown, asking him to grant a reprieve for the condemned inmate.

Across the world, millions awaited the fate of a man they had taken up as the poster boy for ending the death penalty. The freighted decision tore at Pat Brown, whose Catholic faith taught him that execution was immoral.

At the moment, however, Busfield is more concerned about the type of telephone Jerry would have used. During a recent rehearsal for “Chessman,” a new play about the case debuting this week at the B Street Theatre, director Busfield asked his stage manager whether they could hang a phone on the wall for the pivotal scene.

“When I was in college, which wasn’t that long after this, we only had one phone on the wall in the hallway,” he said. It’s his job to consider these details, so the audience can forget the distractions and focus on the story. “We’ll get letters: ‘Well, the play was great, but that phone was wrong.’ 

That is perhaps among the lesser challenges for the creative team behind “Chessman,” a side project of political consultant Joe Rodota. The production attempts to capture the international, O.J. Simpson-like frenzy and divisiveness that surrounded Chessman for more than a decade, while also asking the audience to look beyond its cast of iconic California figures to a family split by a deeply personal, ethical dilemma.

It also strives to keep a neutral distance and a historical sheen on one of California’s most inflammatory political issues, just as voters are weighing two November ballot measures on capital punishment: one to abolish it and one to expedite the process.

“This is not a documentary for or against the death penalty,” Rodota said.

So how did a former aide to Republican Govs. Pete Wilson and Arnold Schwarzenegger come to write a play about arguably the greatest political struggle of one of the state’s most enduring Democratic leaders?

Rodota, a graduate in history from Stanford University, said he began a “second career” a few years ago as a writer. While he continued to run Forward Observer, his bicoastal consulting firm, Rodota began searching for “overlooked moments in political history” that he could turn into a play.

This is not a documentary for or against the death penalty.

“Chessman” writer Joe Rodota

After Busfield suggested he focus on something relevant to California, Rodota thought of the Chessman case. He remembered reading about it in Pat Brown’s 1989 memoir, “Public Justice, Private Mercy: A Governor’s Education on Death Row,” and more intimately, from daughter Kathleen Brown’s 1994 run for governor against Wilson, whose re-election campaign Rodota worked on.

Pressured for months to explain her position on the death penalty, Kathleen Brown held a news conference at the historic Governor’s Mansion. There, she discussed how her family history informed her opposition to the punishment then supported by 80 percent of Californians: a Catholic upbringing, watching her father review briefing binders on capital cases after dinner, the “mortifying” experience of hearing her mother booed at the opening ceremonies of the 1960 Olympic Games while her father stayed home wrestling with the Chessman decision.

“I could no more contemplate being politically correct on this issue than I could contemplate disavowing my family,” she said at the time.

Rodota found his entry point to the incident that reverberated for the Browns, professionally and personally, for decades: “I basically started from scratch looking at the case through the eyes of the family.”

Using trial transcripts and other documents from an extensive Chessman archive at the California State Library, a Brown family oral history housed at UC Berkeley, and the counsel of Pat Brown biographer Ethan Rarick, Rodota began constructing a narrative.

Caryl Chessman was 27 and already a convicted felon when he was found guilty in 1948 of a series of robberies and rapes around Los Angeles. The “Red Light Bandit,” as the perpetrator was dubbed, had visited lovers’ lanes pretending to be a policeman and mugged couples in their cars.

On several occasions, Chessman took the young women back to his vehicle and sexually assaulted them. Under California’s since-discarded “Little Lindbergh Law,” named for the kidnapping and murder of aviator Charles Lindbergh’s infant son, Chessman was sentenced to death for kidnapping with bodily harm, though he had killed no one.

Chessman maintained his innocence and continued to fight his conviction. By 1954, he had been on death row for six years, longer than anyone in California history until that point. The unusual delay for his execution was gaining notice, and it would soon explode into sensation with the publication that year of his first memoir, written secretly and smuggled out of prison.

The crime problem appears to have found its tongue.

“Fortnight” magazine in 1954

Translated into more than a dozen languages and adapted into a movie, “Cell 2455, Death Row: A Condemned Man’s Own Story” captured the public’s imagination with its searing and brutal dispatch from inside San Quentin State Prison.

“The slugging impact of a death sentence upon the psyche is often terrible and always tormenting, with the result that as often as the Death Row ennobles it degrades,” Chessman wrote. “Some men reach the point where they would literally sell … their own mothers for another day of life, and the knowledge that this is so can make you want to vomit.”

As “Fortnight” magazine put it in its Feb. 3, 1954, issue: “The crime problem appears to have found its tongue.”

Blockbuster sales for “Cell 2455” and three more memoirs paid for his lawyers and dozens of appeals over the years. Chessman managed to avoid execution deadline after execution deadline. Eventually, his case came before the newly elected Pat Brown, a death penalty opponent.

By then, Chessman had become a worldwide phenomenon. Thousands of letters and a petition signed by 2 million Brazilians streamed into Brown’s office. Figures ranging from Eleanor Roosevelt to Marlon Brando and Shirley MacLaine lobbied on his behalf. Even the Vatican urged clemency.

While many argued against capital punishment, others felt that death was too extreme a punishment for Chessman’s non-murder case or that his writings proved he had been rehabilitated. Some disputed that he was guilty at all.

The controversy also came at a relative highwater mark for opposition to the death penalty, when Americans were about evenly split on the issue. This allowed Pat Brown to openly grapple over Chessman’s fate without committing “automatic political suicide,” the biographer Rarick noted at a recent panel on the case.

“He always looked for the best with everybody. He was inclined toward mercy, but inclined toward upholding the law,” Rarick said.

Because Chessman had prior felonies, Pat Brown could not commute his sentence without the approval of the California Supreme Court, which voted 4-3 to uphold the conviction. Chessman was going to die.

But the night before the execution was scheduled to proceed, Jerry Brown called his father urging him to grant a 60-day reprieve and pursue a moratorium on the death penalty in the Legislature. As Pat recounted in “Public Justice, Private Mercy,” he believed there was not “one chance in a thousand” that lawmakers would act.

He was inclined toward mercy, but inclined toward upholding the law.

Biographer Ethan Rarick on Gov. Pat Brown

“Then Jerry said, “But Dad, if you were a doctor and there was one chance in a thousand of saving a patient’s life, wouldn’t you take it?’

“I thought about that for a moment. You’re right, I finally said. I’ll do it.”

For his decision, Pat Brown received a slew of negative responses – and a 16-page letter from a “surprised and grateful” Chessman.

With his usual aplomb about the social significance of his case – “the burning hope that my execution would lead to an objective reappraisal of the social validity or invalidity of capital punishment” – Chessman suggested that Brown put forth a proposal excluding him from the mercy granted to others, if it would persuade the Legislature to end the death penalty.

“I do not overstate when I say I gladly would die ten thousand gas chamber deaths if that would bring these truths into hearts and minds of those who make our laws,” he wrote.

Lawmakers, however, had little interest in taking such a decisive step, particularly in an election year. Brown’s bill to abolish the death penalty was quickly swatted down in the Senate Judiciary Committee after a lengthy and highly publicized committee hearing.

Chessman was eventually gassed to death on May 2, 1960, his ninth scheduled execution date. The story appeared on the front page of newspapers from Italy to Brazil. Pat Brown ultimately believed he suffered greatly for his choice, blaming it in part for his loss to Ronald Reagan while running for a third term in 1966.

Jerry Brown has never publicly discussed the phone call with his father, but the Chessman case seems to have resonated deeply with him as well. In 1977, during his first term as governor, he vetoed a bill to reinstate the death penalty before being overridden by the Legislature. He continued to advocate against capital punishment during his 1992 presidential run, and on his ’90s radio program, “We the People,” where he described it as “state murder.”

By his 2010 campaign to return to the governor’s office, however, he had struck a more conciliatory tone: “You want to reinvent the world. But we have the world,” he said at the time. “At this point in time, it’s relatively settled.”

I do not overstate when I say I gladly would die ten thousand gas chamber deaths if that would bring these truths into hearts and minds of those who make our laws.

Caryl Chessman letter to Gov. Pat Brown

In the play, almost all of Chessman’s dialogue is pulled directly from the historical record, notably transcripts from his trial, where he famously served as his own attorney and conducted what Rodota called “horrifying” cross-examinations of his victims. Other scenes take place as imagined confrontations with Pat Brown, where Chessman “enters Pat’s brain and takes over his space,” Rodota said.

Just don’t look for an obvious moral. Director Busfield said the show intentionally does not take sides and allows the audience to make up its own mind.

Which is not to suggest others involved don’t have strong opinions about the material.

At the rehearsal, a scene between Chessman and his mother came to a halt as the cast broke out into discussion over execution by firing squad, which Utah brought back last year.

“I don’t give a s--- if it hurts. I just want them to be dead,” said Phil Cowan, the local radio personality who plays Pat Brown. “Regardless of how I feel about it, if you’re going to do it, do it efficiently.”

The real Pat Brown, Busfield noted, would have disagreed.

Alexei Koseff: 916-321-5236, @akoseff

Chessman

Where: B Street Theatre, 2711 B St., Sacramento

When: 2 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 13. 7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 14; Oct. 18, 19, 20, 21. 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 15; Oct. 22

Tickets: $30-38; $26-$36 for seniors or students

For more information: For tickets, call 916-443-5300 or visit bstreettheatre.org.

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