Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Featured Book: Chessman: And His Nine Lives on Death Row by Terrence Cooney



About the book:

On May 2, 1960, on its ninth attempt, the State of California finally executed Caryl Chessman.

Terrence W. Cooney’s Chessman, told in the liberating form of a factually-informed novel, introduces the reader to all the players in a long odyssey that brought such infamy to the state and country. From Governor Edmund “Pat” Brown to Chessman himself and to the landscape of a fast-changing California, Cooney anchors a chapter of the state’s history that for too long has meandered a-sea. Many of the facts of this hysteria-inducing ordeal were gleaned from archival histories, both oral and written. And while much of he dialogue is imagined, the times, attendees, and days of the meetings that hosted such conversations are not.

In 1956, the author was appointed by the California Supreme Court to serve as counsel representing a defendant who had pleaded guilty to two murders. It was, Cooney knew from the start, a death penalty case. Cooney argued that the arbitrary imposition of the punishment violated the 1791 Eighth Amendment of the Constitution’s Bill of Rights against “Cruel and Unusual Punishment.” His argument was rejected. Subsequently, the U.S. Supreme Court adopted that position in 1972 when it so ruled that the arbitrary imposition of the death penalty constituted cruel and unusual punishment.

Four years later, still unable to shake the case, Cooney had become engrossed by the Caryl Chessman affair that had started to become headline news throughout California and beyond. In 1960, Cooney produced the documentary: Justice and Caryl Chessman. The film was shown in more than 1,500 movie houses throughout the United States alone, and in countless theatres worldwide. During the filming of the documentary, Cooney met Chessman who was, at the time, the most famous resident of San Quentin’s death row. In the process, Cooney also met and conversed with Chessman’s attorneys, prosecutors, investigators and jailers.

Calls for clemency came from all over: Norman Mailer, Ray Bradbury, Robert Frost, former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Governor Brown’s own son and future two-time California Governor Jerry Brown. So strong was the worldwide vitriol over Chessman’s impending doom, that his eighth stay of execution was issued by Governor Brown mainly out of fear of retaliation against President Dwight Eisenhower who was scheduled to be traveling in South America at the time. Governor Edmund Brown later conceded that the Chessman affair cost him any real chance at a successful bid for the presidency of the United States of America.

After Chessman’s execution, Cooney was able to meet former Governor Edmund “Pat” Brown and members of his staff. After fifty years, after decades of anger, hysteria and misinformation, Terrence W. Cooney, has made the boldest move yet by placing all of these facts into the center of a novel that attempts to get to the heart of the matter.



About the author:

The author is a California lawyer who produced the world-wide distributed documentary feature "Justice and Caryl Chessman" in 1960.




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