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Thursday, May 18, 2006

Questions About "Capote" and "In Cold Blood"

After viewing the DVD of last year's movie, "Capote," I was impelled to re-view Richard Brooks' movie of Capote's famous "non-fiction novel," "In Cold Blood." Apart from their merits as art or entertainment, I was reminded of the the power of film to crystallize issues or to distort them.

The best art / entertainment forces us to question our assumptions without lecturing or boring us with its answers. I was left with many questions. Here they are, with some of my personal thoughts, not meant to be definitive answers.

Would Perry Smith, the primary focus of Capote’s book and the movies based on it, be given the death penalty today?
His crimes certainly fit within the category of those which merit it — brutal and senseless executions of 4 innocent, helpless people in their home.

But "heinous" or "shocking" crimes do not lead intevitably to death verdicts. I know of similar, and even “worse,” crimes for which juries refused to order death. I could cite other cases in which juries voted death for crimes that were far less "heinous" than those.

What makes the difference?
No one really knows. There are too many variables to count. The skill and attitude of all parties - police, families, witnesses, judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, jurors, investigators, experts. Money and time available to prepare. Degree of publicity. Politics. Religion. Ambition. Integrity.

Then there are unknowns, random factors that no one could foresee, but which often determine the choice. The way the defendant looks to a juror, whether a lawyer or witness is likeable, how jurors relate to each other ... and a thousand other imponderables that no one has figured out.
In practice, there are so many variables involved that it is impossible to predict an outcome. All we can say for sure is that system operates in a chaotic and capricious way.

Even in Kansas at the time the events occurred, opinions were apparently divided.
According to the Lawrence, Kansas Journal-World, April 6, 2005 , most in the community of Holcomb, Kansas certainly were pleased with the verdict. But not all. Howard Fox, the brother of victim Bonnie Clutter is reported to have publically urged mercy for the killers on Christian principles: “The deed is done, and taking another life cannot change it... Instead, let us forgive as God would have us do ..."

In a recent interview (2004), he is again quoted as saying: "You have to (forgive). Otherwise, you can't live with yourself. (The criminals) should've been put away, of course, but hanging is an old-world way of things."

The same article also noted the ambivalence of Kansans to the death penalty: “Since its beginning, the state of Kansas has swung back and forth in its support of the death penalty. In 1859, when Kansas was still a territory, it passed its first death penalty law. The law was done away with in 1907, reinstated in 1935, again repealed in 1972 and finally reinstated in 1994. The method of execution until 1994 was hanging. After that it became lethal injection.

“Since the law was reinstated, seven men have been sentenced to death in Kansas, but there have been no executions. Their death sentences were thrown in doubt in December 2004, when the Kansas Supreme Court struck down the state's death penalty statute because of problems with how juries consider evidence during the sentencing phase of a capital murder trial ....”

I don’t claim to be an expert on the facts of the Clutter case. Reading a “nonfiction novel,” watching a “docu-drama” movie, and reading news articles on the subject fail to qualify me to reach a verdict, but even a cursory internet surf reveals facts related to the case that, in the least, raises hackles.

For instance:
• The lawyers and jurors all knew (or knew of) and admired the victims before the crimes. Despite that, the appointed defense lawyers did not ask for a change of venue (supposedly advising their clients that local ministers had preached against the death penalty).
• Psychiatric testimony - by today’s standards - was primitive and sketchy. One supposed expert opined that the 31 year old Smith’s “enurisis” (bedwetting) was a characteristic of a serial killer, though there was no evidence of any other muders in Smith’s record.
• Even so, a local psychiatrist testified that Hickock was sane, but he could not be sure about Smith.
• Smith was in thrall of his crime partner, Hickock, described as a con man, who kept urging the unstable Smith to leave no witnesses.
• Smith had won a Bronze Star in the Korean War.
• Smith had a cruel, violent childhood with alcoholism, neglect, abuse, suicide rampant.
• He had expressed remorse, but little effort was apparently put into his defense (the trial took 8 days).
• The alternative of life without parole was not available in 1960 in Kansas.

Would these points — or any one of them — make a difference to an “impartial” jury?
My experience tells me the answer is possibly yes ---
IF these facts were presented through effective lawyering --- urging consideration of not just the circumstances of the crime, but also the background of the defendant, as is required by today’s capital laws.
Then again, none of it might sway a jury, even today. It's a crapshoot.

It seems clearer that, in the atmosphere (and state of the law) of the 1950's, the verdict was probably inevitable.
In 1950's rural Kansas, brutal crimes were rare. Today, we are inured to such events.

Should that make a difference in the punishment?

Would (and should) the same crimes in California or New York demand “automatic” death for the culprits?
L.A. had its version in The Manson Cases in the early 1970's, resulting in death verdicts (which were later converted to life after California’s then existing capital law was overturned).

Finally, the movie "Capote" contains chilling moments in which Smith urges the writer to use his book to argue against his imminent execution. Capote is depicted as dissembling, really waiting and hoping for the execution to occur before finishing his book.

If Capote had used his talent to assist Smith, would (or should) that have made a difference?
He was a celebrity and could have marshaled others to make it “a cause.” Around the same time, Caryl Chessman had his supporters in California, including Burt Lancaster and other celebs who actively petititioned the governor to spare his life. That effort failed.

In “Capote,” the author claimed to hate himself for choosing his art and his ambition over his feelings for Smith, whatever they were in truth. He is said to have “believed” that Smith and Hickock deserved to die, despite his empathy for Smith, in whom he saw a tortured soul not unlike his own.

Was it his own self-loathing death wish that impelled the writer’s duality, his actions and inaction?
Was it the need for fame, success, the need for recognition of his genius, his own “just reward.”
Or simply his sense of the best — the most dramatic — ending for his book?

Did the execution provide closure, at least for Capote?

He claimed that the “experience” stayed with him for the rest of his life. But he was notoriously unreliable about his own “truths.” An epilogue reminds us that he never finished another major work and became a hopeless alcoholic. He is mostly remembered in his last years as a silly celebrity a self-parody, famous for being famous.

I can't answer my own questions to my complete satisfaction. I don't know if anyone can. The popularity of movies that intelligently raise the issue (e.g., "Dead Man Walking"), show only that the questions continue to haunt us.


  1. Great post.
    I could never understand why Capote wrote that book. I read it. There were only questions, no answers.
    Something else comes to mind. It's Nabokov's "Lolita." No one ever understood why Nabokov wrote it. There are only speculations. Kubrik's film doesn't do justice to it.
    I see that this post is dated 2006. Maybe you have found some answers since then. Maybe not.
    I actually didn't like the book. Maybe because I was unwilling to look at something as dark as that, at that time. But then, I have never really appreciated Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment" either. I thought it to be his weakest novel. However, the two are connected. Not knowing much about Capote's own theories, I happened to teach Dostoevsky's a while ago. One of them is the "Superman" - that one can do anything, provided one is not caught... Except Raskolnikov proves his "father" Dostoevsky wrong - he can't live with himself. And therein lies the difference, I believe, between Capote's character and that of Dostoevsky's. While the former can't feel empathy, the latter feels too much and is resentful and angry about that.