10 Last-minute Stays of Execution


The Call That Came Too Late

Caryl Chessman points to a list of his crimes. Archive Photos/Getty Images
Caryl Chessman points to a list of his crimes. Archive Photos/Getty Images

Caryl Chessman, the infamous "red light bandit," pretended to be a police officer so that he could rob and sexually assault women. He was convicted in 1948 on 17 felony counts [source: Associated Press]. Although Chessman hadn't killed anyone, the two kidnapping counts qualified him for the death penalty under a stringent California anti-kidnapping statute [source: Biography.com]. The mountain of evidence against Chessman, which included three victims who unequivocally identified him, was compelling [source: Time].

Nevertheless, over the next 12 years, Chessman managed to make himself into an international cause célèbre, in part by writing several books professing his innocence — one of which, "Cell 2455, Death Row," was made into a 1955 movie [source: The New York Times]. Numerous celebrities, including former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and evangelist Billy Graham, supported his cause. On February 1960, California Gov. Edmund "Pat" Brown granted Chessman his eighth stay of execution, citing the concern that his execution might trigger demonstrations against President Eisenhower when he visited Uruguay [source: Mayer].

But when that stay expired, prison officials quickly moved to execute him. On May 2, 1960, the day of his scheduled execution at San Quentin, his lawyer got a federal judge to issue another stay — just one minute before the cyanide pellets were to be dropped into the gas chamber. The judge's secretary called San Quentin, but misdialed the number. By the time she got through, the pellets were already dropped and no one could enter the chamber without dying themselves. Chessman's execution went on [source: Biography].