Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Six Degrees of ... Something

Six degrees of separation is the idea that most of us, maybe all of us, are connected in one way or another by a mere six steps, or degrees.

I don't know how serious the notion is. To me, it's a parlor game. But it's fun to find odd connections.

Caryl Chessman in 1957
On May 2, 1960, Caryl Chessman was executed by the great state of California for crimes attributed to the "Red Light Bandit."

Chessman always maintained his innocence. But whoever he was, the Red Light Bandit was a bad guy: there's no doubt about that. He committed a series of rapes in the Los Angeles area in the late 1940s. His sobriquet is derived from his use of a red light (resembling a police light) to stop his victims, thereby gaining their trust for just long enough to begin his terrible deeds.

Yet as heinous as these crimes were, the Red Light Bandit committed no murders. It became a capital case under the "Little Lindbergh" law, which addresses kidnapping. The crimes were kidnappings because the victims were forced to move from one location (a car) to another location (another car).

Chessman survived twelve years on death row, and became a cause célèbre after penning an autobiography called Cell 2455 Death Row in the mid-fifties. The book became an international sensation and was translated into several languages.

I read Cell 2455 a long time ago. More recently I read a book about Chessman called When You Read This, They Will Have Killed Me. It was written by Alan Bisbort and published (by Carroll & Graf) in 2006. Overall, the book is okay. But the author is strangely unsympathetic to the Red Light Bandit's victims.

Now, about those six degrees.

For a time, Chessman was associated with ACLU attorney A.L. Wirin, who was involved in a legal battle to recover a Chessman manuscript seized by prison authorities. Wirin was a leading civil libertarian who has long since died. In spite of his liberal credentials, he argued in favor of the Warren Report in 1964, in a three-on-one debate against Mark Lane.

So, A.L. Wirin worked on behalf of Chessman, and in 1964 debated Mark Lane. In 1998 I met Mark Lane, and a few years later interviewed him.

Voila! In fewer than six degrees, I have linked myself to Caryl Chessman. But it's only a parlor game.

A journalist who once wrote about Chessman later became involved in the Kennedy assassination. Nerin Gun interviewed Chessman in San Quentin in 1955. Eight years later Gun wrote Red Roses from Texas, one of the earliest books about the Kennedy case. But I can't connect myself to that – at least, not in six degrees!

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