Thursday, April 17, 2014

"When did you form your opinion?"

Last week I attended a presentation entitled “I am Troy Davis” sponsored by a number of organizations working towards the eradication of the death penalty in Washington state.
While waiting for the evening to begin the lady sitting next to me turned to me asking when I first began to form my position on capital punishment. She correctly presumed that I was there as a supporter of ending the death penalty across the country.
My quick memory scan came up with nothing concrete to tell her.
I felt slightly embarrassed that I didn’t have a well thought out reply in my quiver.

Over the next couple of days I wandered back in time to see if I could find when the kernel of disapproval was planted.

I recall being in grade school, in San Francisco, overhearing adults talking about Caryl Chessman and his pending execution.
He was called the “Red Light Bandit.”
One of the older kids, at the park I went to everyday, told us younger kids that the moniker meant way more than his using a red light on his car to make his victims think he was a lawman. I only got the police car image. I had no idea at the time what else it could have meant.
At school one of the kids asked our teacher, a nun, about the upcoming execution and why so many people were talking about it. She brilliantly dodged the question and moved us on to whatever the subject was we were suppose to be concentrating on in class.
Since she didn’t answer, we, of course, wanted to know everything.

One of my friends had twin sisters, high school seniors, who took great joy in pointing out how bothersome we were and how they were planning on having us sold to pirates, as soon as they could figure out how to do that without the finger of the law pointing back at them.
During a brief moment of acceptance, at the kitchen table, by these worldly ladies, my friend Larry asked them to tell us what this whole thing was about. One of them, Janet, looked at us long and hard before telling us that she was totally against anyone being killed by the government. She told us Chessman had kidnapped a couple of girls and hurt them badly while he did it. She left out all the gruesome details that we wouldn’t have understood anyway. She explained that the governor had given Chessman a couple of stays of execution and that she hoped he would not be executed. Her sister agreed with her saying they were going to join a protest at school to spare Chessman.

The rest is a blur of grade school memories, though I do recall when he died. There were protests that were well covered in the newspaper and on TV though I didn’t really focus on them anymore than any other adult news. Part of me, the listening part, was taking in information, even if I didn’t realize it at the time.
One of my older brothers, at dinner, shared how Chessman was in the gas chamber when a phone call come through to the warden telling the warden that Chessman had another stay. Apparently the warden told the caller he couldn’t stop what had begun or the poison would leak out of the gas chamber and kill everyone in attendance. 
The caller, out of nervousness, had misdialed the prison number the first time she tried to pass on the news to the warden. 
That image of him in the death chamber, as the phone rang, stuck in my brain even though it didn’t come back to the surface for years and years.
I recall family members being happy that he was dead. I hope thats a false memory, but I dont think so-

Days later my friend Larry asked his sister Charlotte what she thought about Chessman's death.
After she shared her thoughts, and anger, about the execution I remember her reading to us the remarks of Herb Caen, a legendary San Francisco columnist, who our parents were always quoting about one thing or another.
I looked up his remarks to see if my memory had any truth to it.
Here is what he said.

The purpose of capital punishment [is] to set an Example. And if this is so, why isn’t it done properly? Why isn't Caryl Chessman gassed in the middle of Union Square at high noon, so that thousands of people (plus millions of TV viewers) can witness the fate of wrongdoers and vow, then and there, never to step outside the law? But no, that would be an indecent spectacle, abhorrent to those who prefer to live by euphemisms. He must be done away with in a gloomy little room surrounded by a protective nest of walls, before the eyes of a few select witnesses - as though the act itself, the final demonstration of the majesty of the law, were some dark and dreadful thing. And a dark and dreadful thing it is.”

Thats when it began...