Anti Death Penalty Argument English Literature Essay

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The first such point is the belief that Dick Hickock and Perry Smith's trial was unfair and unjust. It begins with Capote pointing out the lack of enthusiasm of the lawyers assigned to the case: 

"I do not desire to serve," [Smith's lawyer] told the judge. "But if the court sees fit to appoint me, then of course I have no choice." Hickock's attorney . . . accepted the task with resigned grace: "Someone has to do it. And I'll do my best. Though I doubt that'll make me too popular around here." (257) 


    This is what worries anti-death penalty advocates, since men and women (usually poor and unable to afford an attorney) could be killed not because they are guilty, but because they are not properly represented. Their first decision in court is not to change venues (266), a point that comes up later under appeal. Capote persists in pointing out questionable judgements of the judge as well. He does not allow the defense to use psychiatrists to examine Perry and Dick, agreeing with the prosecution that "medical doctors in general practice" were good enough (267). He does not delay the beginning of the trial, even though the Clutter's estate auction occurs one day before the trial starts (269). The jury process seems ominous as well: 


During the voir dire examination, four of [the prospective jurors] told the court they had been personally, though not intimately, acquainted with Mr. Clutter; but upon further questioning [they] did not feel this . . . would hinder [their] ability to reach an impartial verdict. . . . [One juror] said, when asked his opinion of capital punishment, "Ordinarily I'm against it. But in this case, no" - a declaration which . . . seemed clearly indicative of prejudice. [He] was nevertheless accepted as a juror. (273) 


    Finally, photos of the dead Clutters were allowed to be shown to the jurors at trial, against the objection of Dick's lawyer, who felt the pictures would "prejudice and inflame" their judgement (281). Collectively, these issues show a trial process unfairly slanted against Perry and Dick. Anti-death penalty advocates would point out that an unfair trail leading to a death penalty conviction is not justice, but an elaborate ruse to justify revenge. 

    Another point tying into the trial itself is the court's refusal to accept that Perry and Dick were not psychologically responsible, and therefore not punishable, for the murder of the Clutters. Capote shows several times in his narrative how each killer may not have been sane. As a first cause of this mental instability, Capote points out (and repeats) how Perry and Dick were both injured in automobile wrecks (134, 279, 292). By doing so, he elicits sympathy for the killers, as well as showing a possible excuse for their behavior. Their actions and thoughts certainly walk the line of sanity. Perry confesses he was in a kind of fugue state while murdering the Clutters: "But I didn't realize what I'd done till I heard the sound" (244). Both Dick and Perry describe the act of murder with a disturbing flatness of emotion. Dick tells Perry, "Let's count on eight, or even twelve. The only sure thing is every one of them has got to go" (37). (As if talking of having dinner guests, instead of murdering people!) Perry says, "I thought [Mr. Clutter] was a very nice gentleman. Soft-spoken. I thought so right up to the moment I cut his throat" (244). Later, he tells a jail visitor, "It's easy to kill - a lot easier than passing a bad check" (291). Perry also has his personal quirks, not least of which is the belief running throughout the narrative that he will be rescued by a giant yellow bird, even in jail (265). 

    Hampered by the M'Naughten rule, which states that criminal insanity is possible only if the accused does not know the difference between wrong and right (316), Perry and Dick's lawyers cannot enter into evidence the opinions of doctors with a broader range of "insane." Capote, however, gives two such doctors ample room in the book to argue their point. Dr. Jones believes that Dick's injury could have physiological implications to his psychological state, thus making his actions outside of his control (294-295). Perry's mental health is even more questionable; he suffers from "'paranoid' orientation," "poorly controlled rage," and a disordered thought process (296-297). Dr. Satten, a forensic psychiatrist, also felt that Perry and Dick entered a "mental eclipse" outside of their control (302). (It is important to note how Capote devotes four pages to excerpts from Satten's"Murder Without Apparent Motive" journal article, 298-302.) An anti-death penalty advocate would point out the problems with "killing" Perry and Dick if their mental unfitness is even possibly true; they are simply "sick" people, in need of treatment and compassion, not punishment. 

    Nevertheless, the Kansas Supreme Court, when given many of the above arguments, denied Perry and Dick's appeal (329). The killers are sent to death row, and this leads to Capote's final attempt to sway the reader to an anti-death penalty bias. It is clear from the way Capote shows the death penalty being carried out which side he is on. In Kansas, it is done by hanging the criminal, and Capote describes it graphically. 

    Lowell Lee Andrews is the first to hang in the book. Dick is a grim witness: 


"Old Andy, he danced a long time. They must have had a real mess to clean up. Every few minutes the doctor [would check for a heartbeat, then step outside]. I wouldn't say he was enjoying the work - kept gasping, like he was gasping for breath, and he was crying, too. . . . I guess the reason he stepped outside was so the others wouldn't see he was crying. Then he'd go back and listen to hear if Andy's heart had stopped. Seemed like it never would. The fact is, his heart kept beating for nineteen minutes." (331-332) 


    Capote punctures two balloons of the pro-death penalty advocate in this narrative. One is the feeling of supposed satisfaction from carrying out the highest form of justice. The state doctor's weeping shows the ambiguous feelings of those very servants of justice. The second is that criminals do not suffer while being executed. Hanging is clearly not "cruel and unusual punishment" when the criminal takes nineteen minutes to die. 

    This leads into Dick's hanging, who "hung for all to see a full twenty minutes before the prison doctor at last said, 'I pronounce this man dead'" (339, my italics), and the dialogue between a guard and a reporter afterward:


[The guard says], "They don't feel nothing. Drop, snap, and that's it. They don't feel nothing."

"Are you sure? I was standing right close. I could hear him gasping for breath."

"Uh-huh, but he don't feel nothing. Wouldn't be humane if he did."

"Well. And I suppose they feed them a lot of pills. Sedatives."

"Hell, no. Against the rules. . . ." (340) 


    It should also be noted how this is a prime example of Capote's poetic license. For "non-fiction," this would be a remarkable feat of photographic memory or attentive listening to capture such word for word dialogue between two people . . . if it was actually said out loud at all. For a novel full of exact names, Capote quietly keeps the "guard" and the "reporter" anonymous. Could it be Capote is slipping his own personal thoughts into two fictionalized characters? 

    Perry is hung next. Al Dewey, the K.B.I. detective, gives a final poignant moment to his death: 


Dewey shut his eyes; he kept them shut until he heard the thud-snap that announces a rope-broken neck. . . . He remembered his first meeting with Perry in the interrogation room . . . the dwarfish boy-man seated in the metal chair, his small booted feet not quite brushing the floor. And when Dewey now opened his eyes, that is what he saw: the same childish feet, tilted, dangling. (340-341) 


    When the detective who was in charge of the Clutter murder case feels sympathy for the killer, and indirectly, disparaging capital punishment as well, it is difficult not to feel the same. Capote is to thank, or blame, for leading the reader to this conclusion. He may do it brilliantly, but it shows how the telling of a story is always influenced by who tells it. That bias is not wrong in a non-fiction novel, so long that you can see the fiction from the fact. 



Quotes from Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, Vintage International, New York: 1994.

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