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Death Penalty - The Caryl Chessman Case - Irreversible Error

NCJ Number
San Fernando Valley Law Review Volume: 11 Dated: (1983) Pages: 21-42
E G Brown; A L Alarcon; F M Cooper
Date Published
22 pages
Changes in the penal code since Caryl Chessman's 1948 trial are discussed with reference to what the effect of these changes might have had on the outcome of the case.
In 1948, Chessman was convicted of 17 felonies; for 2 of these the jury imposed the death penalty. These two counts were for violation of Penal Code section 209, kidnapping for the purpose of robbery. This statute had been amended in 1933 in the aftermath of the notorious Lindbergh kidnapping. Chessman's first appeal in 1951 argued that a recent amendment of the broad wording of the 1933 statute should be applied to him, particularly in view of the legislative intent that stand-still robberies be excluded from its provision. In subsequent cases, the courts promulgated a new test for determining whether robbery involving the movement of the victim could be punished under Penal Code section 209: was the movement merely incidental to the crime? If so, did it substantially increase the risk of harm? A reassessment of the Chessman case, using this test, indicates that the conviction should not have been sustained. Moreover, errors in instructions to the jury operated to Chessman's prejudice, resulting in the imposition of the death penalty. Finally, an examination of the gross disparity between the punishments affixed to violation of Penal Code section 209 and that for first-degree murder compels the conclusion that the death penalty meted out to Chessman could not withstand constitutional scurtiny today. A total of 51 footnotes are provided.