Nancy Clutter died on November 15, 1959 in the small hours of a
windy, cold, Kansas night. She was sixteen when Perry Smith, a
thirty-one year old parolee with bandied legs broken and shortened by
a motorcycle accident, put a shot gun about two inches from the back
of her head and pulled the trigger. The blast of that shotgun shell
sent Nancy Clutter to her grave and Perry Smith to the gallows. These
two intentional killings define a tragically repetitious American
tale of murder, revenge, denial and ambivalence.
Nancy Clutter was a vibrant, high school senior preparing for college
when she was murdered. Perry Smith was a penniless, parole-violator
who wanted to rob the Clutter family and flee to Mexico for a life of
obscurity and imagined luxury. The complete story about that night of
forty years ago includes Smith's criminal partner, Richard Hickock,
and the killing of Nancy Clutter's mother, father and younger
brother. The Clutter family was murdered for a transistor radio, a
pair of binoculars and about $50 in cash. What could be more
The book, In Cold Blood, tells the story of the murder of the Clutter
family and the execution of their killers. Written by celebrated
author Truman Capote, In Cold Blood has been widely accepted as the
definitive account of the Clutter murders. Few acknowledge that
Capote was a fiction writer, not a journalist. His goal was to author
a masterwork of fiction not to write an objective, analytical account
of a terrible crime. The book portrays Perry Smith as a sympathetic
character who had endured life-long, appalling abuse and was
compelled by his own schizophrenic psychosis to murder the Clutter
family. Capote succeeded in turning a sociopath into a victim. We
succeeded in mistaking Capote's literature for fact. The book became
a best seller and spawned two successful movies. These are
incontrovertible testimony on the good-natured compassion and
gullibility of the American public.
Perry Smith and Richard Hickock were hanged on April 14, 1965. A
violent end to the violence they began - an eye for an eye and all
that. Capital punishment is the American way. Find them. Convict
them. Kill them. Society is protected and the grieving families of
the victims are revenged. The approach is simple, but is it justice?
Consider these facts about the death penalty in the USA.
During 1995, fifty-six Americans were executed: all were male,
thirty-three were Caucasian, twenty-two were African-American, one
was Asian-American. Forty-nine executions were done by lethal
injection. Seven were done by electrocution. No one was hanged,
gassed, or shot. Execution is getting less dramatic and more clinical.
Pennsylvania currently holds about 200 inmates on Death Row. Nearly
half of these condemned men are from Philadelphia. Yet, Philadelphia
accounts for only fourteen percent of the total population of
Texas led the nation in executions during 1997 and 1998. During these
busy years, more than one-third of Texas' death row inmates were
residents of Houston. The population of the City of Houston is not
one-third of the total population of Texas. Pennsylvania and Texas
confirm that if the question is about the death penalty, just like
real estate, the answer is location, location, location.
DNA tests conducted recently on more than 20,000 convicted criminals
established the innocence of twenty percent of these men. A judicial
system with a twenty-percent error rate cannot be trusted and ought
not to be blithely granted the power to kill.
Crime Magazine recently published federal statistics showing that
since 1930, more than 4,400 people have been executed in the USA.
Between 1882 and 1951, no fewer than 4,730 people were lynched by
extra-legal, citizen mobs. Forget the distinction between a sentence
and a lynching. Murder is murder. It doesn't matter whether the act
is done by an authorized medical technician with a needle, or an
enraged mob with a rope. Killing is killing. Just because a judge
raps a gavel and cites law doesn't change that fact. The taking of a
human life is murder.
It costs, on average, about $2.2 million to carry out a death
sentence. Between conviction and execution the average inmate spends
slightly less than a decade on Death Row. During those ten years,
states spend about $200,000 in room and board for each inmate and
nearly $2 million in legal expenses related to each inmate's case.
What if we did away with the death penalty and sentenced murderers to
life in prison without the possibility of parole? If the average life
span is seventy-some years and inmates are on average in their
twenties at the start of their life-without-parole sentences, the
state would have to house convicted murders for about fifty years.
That would cost about $1 million for each murderer. What a bargain!
Feeding them costs taxpayers half as much as killing them.
Many argue that the death penalty is a deterrent to others who might
kill. Would you change your behavior in response to a secret you are
told exists but which you are not allowed to know? Probably not.
Without publicizing and broadcasting executions, there should be no
expectation that capital punishment is a deterrent to future crime.
Some argue that the death penalty is an absolute deterrent for one
person - the condemned. That is true and therein lies a basis for
much of the support for capital punishment. Too often criminals who
had been put away for life or lengthy terms have been released on
parole. Too often these liberated predators commit savage crimes. The
death penalty prevents the justice system from demonstrating its
wisdom, compassion and untrustworthy judgement about rehabilitation.
The death penalty is society's insurance against the professional
misfeasance of the judicial system.
Here is the fact of it all. We are frightened. We are afraid of
murderers and potential murderers. We want them out of our society -
locked up or dead and we don't care which. Yet, we are equally afraid
of the criminal justice system. We are afraid that it will release
convicted murderers into our midst either by accident or intent. We
also fear that the criminal justice system will execute innocent
people who, thanks to blundering professionals, rapacious prosecutors
or biased juries, were wrongly convicted.
When protector and predator frighten you equally, ambivalence is the
only rational asylum. A more attentive interpretation of this deadly
machinery recognizes that the criminal justice system is, at best, an
arcane, often-inept decision system. Justice has precious little to
do with its outcomes. All the more reason for a sagacious dose of
Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacey, Jeffery Dahlmer, Richard Hickock and
Perry Smith. They came, they killed and they have been executed or
murdered in jail. They are gone and I say good riddance. But their
kind will come again and kill again. Each generation produces its own
slayers. In fact, the FBI estimates that there are currently at least
fifty unidentified, serial killers at large and at work in the USA.
Nancy Clutter died in the millisecond it took for a load of buckshot
to vaporize much of her brain and blow off her face. Perry Smith's
heart beat for seventeen minutes after the rope that ended his fall
from the gallows broke his neck. I find no justice in either
I oppose the death penalty. Yet, I am comforted to know that men like
Perry Smith have been and continued to be executed. You see, my
rational mind fails me the moment I recall that in the west of
Kansas, on the banks of the Arkansas River in the town of Holcomb,
young Nancy Clutter lies in her grave beside her mother, father and
younger brother. Had it not been for the criminal justice system's
decision to parole Perry Smith, she would have been fifty-seven next
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