Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Behind the Songs: Iron Lady

"And the chaplain, he reads the final prayer:
'Be brave, my son, the Lord is waiting there'
Oh, murder is so wrong, you see
Both the Bible and the courts agree
That the state's allowed to murder in the chair"
--Phil Ochs, "Iron Lady" (1964)

Rebel and a Cause: Caryl Chessman and the Politics of the Death Penalty in Postwar California, 1948-1974

Theodore Hamm uses the 1960 execution of Caryl Chessman as a springboard for examining how politics and debates about criminal justice became a volatile mix that ignited postwar California. The effects of those years continue to be felt as the state's three-strikes law and expanding prison-construction program spark heated arguments over rehabilitation and punishment.

Known as the "red light bandit," Chessman stalked lovers' lanes in Los Angeles. Eventually convicted of rape and kidnapping, he was sentenced to death in 1948. In prison he gained significant notoriety as a writer, beginning with his autobiographical Cell 2455 Death Row (1954). In the following years Chessman presented himself not only as an innocent man but also as one rehabilitated from his prior life of crime. He acquired an enthusiastic audience among leading criminologists, liberal intellectuals, and ordinary citizens, many of whom engaged in protests to halt Chessman's execution. Hamm analyzes how Chessman convinced thousands of Californians to support him and why Governor Edmund G. (Pat) Brown, who opopsed the death penalty, allowed the execution to go forward. He also demonstrates the intrinsic limits of the popular commitment to the rehabilitative ideal--limits based on race, type of crime, and perceptions of public safety.

Hamm places the Chessman case in a broad cultural and historical context, relating it to histories of prison reform, the anti-death penalty movement, the popularization of psychology, and the successive rise and decline of the New Left and the more enduring rise of the New Right. His persuasive analysis is valuable in understanding the symbolic politics behind "law and order" movements not only in California but throughout the United States.

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