|How a Man Was Given His Life Back
by Paul Weeks
reprinted from The Stockton (CA) Record
Wednesday, October 8, 2003
The year: 1959. The place: The Los Angeles Mirror. The assignment: a note from the city desk -- "See a guy out at this Valley address who just got paroled after 34 years."
Next scene: The Valley. "Hi. I'm from The Mirror. Got a minute?"
Ask that of a man who has been counting the clock down since he first got sent to Death Row in 1925, and you wish you'd buttoned your lip.
Charles "Chick" Galloway, was a little Irishman from San Francisco, born four years before the Great Quake of 1906 to a linotype operator (and sometime preacher), with a mother as soft, warm and Irish as "Mother Machree." She sang in the choir and taught Chick to sing a sweet baritone -- an impish kid ready made for old-time vaudeville as he matured.
He didn't get around to recounting some of that bio the day we met. After he'd told me of his conviction and about what the world looked like the day he walked free, we began talking about what he did in the lockup. "Worked on the campus newspaper," he grinned -- an "embedded" newsman!
He was a born reporter -- a sharp eye for detail, curious about what's happened and about what's going to happen next, a digger for just the facts, ma'am, and a sentimental Jimmy Durante sense of humor. The words came out in a flood -- from him and this reporter, who was just supposed to ask the questions and not begin swapping shop talk.
Chick had sung, danced and cracked jokes in vaudeville at the old Cotton Club in Culver City on the night in 1925 his life changed forever. He'd been drinking after the show. A tough cast member who towered over Chick took him on. Chick went down. He grabbed an old car crank (OK, Vintage readers, remember them?), and swung it. His assailant hit his head on the pavement and went to his grave. Chick went on trial.
Verdict: Murder. Sentence: Death from the hangman's knot. Before his time to go, Chick got word that one of the jurors had come forward belatedly and reported that a juror said while they were weighing the evidence that she'd "vote to hang any man who's a lush."
Chick won a retrial and lost again, with the sentence reduced to life imprisonment. He had killed. In 2003, he probably would have been freed on a self-defense plea or convicted of manslaughter. He had no previous criminal record, but one night's crime had given him long nights in a den of criminals, violence, fear, of being bullied, and endless hours to reflect on that swing of the car crank had done to another man -- and to himself.
Next scene: Back in the cityroom, fumbling at my typewriter -- throwing one lead away and starting all over again -- remembering Galloway's account of once having his throat slit because he'd been a witness to some prisoners killing another.
There were good days for Chick: Writing about the baseball team, keeping official score, covering the boxing matches now that he was in Folsom. He rose on good behavior to become the warden's secretary and named editor of The Folsom Observer (files he ultimately bequeathed to me).
He reached the high point in his prison "city room" -- a tiny cubbyhole to do his writing and editing. Chick had become a popular guy because everyone gave him the fermentable scraps from the mess table. He had come by about a dozen quart-sized Mason jars and stored them high in his city room where the sun could reach them. After 10 days or so, he had furtive drinks with his pals from his alcohol concoctions.
Then: Alone. He watched another prisoner slain next to the Folsom Observer's little city room. He pleaded with the killers to spare him -- that, as a witness, he wouldn't "rat" on them (prisoners' own rules). They slit his throat.
With Chick at death's door, the district attorney wheedled with him to name the killers. Chick sealed his lips. He knew his death would be certain if he told on the killers. He didn't. So he lived.
Back in The Mirror's city room, I fumbled with the typewriter keys -- knocked out one lead, threw it away; another and another and another, thrown them all away. Expecting sharp words from the city desk man, I said, "Hank, I don't want to write this. I want you to give this guy a job on the paper."
Chick served as a 57-year-old copy boy until The Mirror folded. They moved him over to the Los Angeles Times' city room, where he answered the tangle of telephone calls that need to be sifted through, and stayed there until retirement after age 70.
One night, after Sirhan Sirhan had been sentenced to death in the gas chamber for assassinating Robert Kennedy, a reporter from Miami was on the line: "Tell me: Where I can find when California abandoned hanging?"
Chick remembered the exact year as he replied to a shellshocked reporter. For Chick was the last man sentenced to the gallows in California. At least that was his story, and I never bothered to check it out.
Paul Weeks is a distinguished veteran journalist who worked for the Los Angeles Daily News, Mirror, Times, and later the RAND Corporation. He lives in Oceanside and works as a freelance writer.
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