In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

  Aside from a formal plea to the jury, which would not take place until the morrow, the psychiatrist’s testimony terminated Hickock’s planned defense. Next it was the turn of Arthur Fleming, Smith’s elderly counselor. He presented four witnesses: the Reverend James E. Post, the Protestant chaplain at Kansas State Penitentiary; Perry’s Indian friend, Joe James, who after all had arrived by bus that morning, having traveled a day and two nights from his wilderness home in the Far Northwest; Donald Cullivan; and, once again, Dr. Jones. Except for the latter, these men were offered as “character witnesses”—persons expected to attribute to the accused a few human virtues. They did not fare very well, though each of them negotiated some skimpily favorable remark before the protesting prosecution, which contended that personal comments of this nature were “incompetent, irrelevant, immaterial,” hushed and banished them.

  For example, Joe James, dark-haired, even darker-skinned than Perry, a lithe figure who with his faded huntsman’s shirt and moccasined feet looked as though he had that instant mysteriously emerged from woodland shadows, told the court that the defendant had lived with him off and on for over two years. “Perry was a likable kid, well liked around the neighborhood—he never done one thing out of the way to my knowledge.” The state stopped him there; and stopped Cullivan, too, when he said, “During the time I knew him in the Army, Perry was a very likable fellow.”

  The Reverend Post survived somewhat longer, for he made no direct attempt to compliment the prisoner, but described sympathetically an encounter with him at Lansing. “I first met Perry Smith when he came to my office in the prison chapel with a picture he had painted—a head-and-shoulders portrait of Jesus Christ done in pastel crayon. He wanted to give it to me for use in the chapel. It’s been hanging on the walls of my office ever since.”

  Fleming said, “Do you have a photograph of that painting?” The minister had an envelope full; but when he produced them, ostensibly for distribution among the jurors, an exasperated Logan Green leaped to his feet: “If Your Honor please, this is going too far . . .” His Honor saw that it went no further.

  Dr. Jones was now recalled, and following the preliminaries that had accompanied his original appearance, Fleming put to him the crucial query: “From your conversations and examination of Perry Edward Smith, do you have an opinion as to whether he knew right from wrong at the time of the offense involved in this action?” And once more the court admonished the witness: “Answer yes or no, do you have an opinion?”


  Amid surprised mutters, Fleming, surprised himself, said, “You may state to the jury why you have no opinion.”

  Green objected: “The man has no opinion, and that’s it.” Which it was, legally speaking.

  But had Dr. Jones been permitted to discourse on the cause of his indecision, he would have testified: “Perry Smith shows definite signs of severe mental illness. His childhood, related to me and verified by portions of the prison records, was marked by brutality and lack of concern on the part of both parents. He seems to have grown up without direction, without love, and without ever having absorbed any fixed sense of moral values. . . . He is oriented, hyperalert to things going on about him, and shows no sign of confusion. He is above average in intelligence, and has a good range of information considering his poor educational background. . . . Two features in his personality make-up stand out as particularly pathological. The first is his ‘paranoid’ orientation toward the world. He is suspicious and distrustful of others, tends to feel that others discriminate against him, and feels that others are unfair to him and do not understand him. He is overly sensitive to criticisms that others make of him, and cannot tolerate being made fun of. He is quick to sense slight or insult in things others say, and frequently may misinterpret well-meant communications. He feels he has great need of friendship and understanding, but he is reluctant to confide in others, and when he does, expects to be misunderstood or even betrayed. In evaluating the intentions and feelings of others, his ability to separate the real situation from his own mental projections is very poor. He not infrequently groups all people together as being hypocritical, hostile, and deserving of whatever he is able to do to them. Akin to this first trait is the second, an ever-present, poorly controlled rage—easily triggered by any feeling of being tricked, slighted, or labeled inferior by others. For the most part, his rages in the past have been directed at authority figures—father, brother, Army sergeant, state parole officer—and have led to violent assaultive behavior on several occasions. Both he and his acquaintances have been aware of these rages, which he says ‘mount up’ in him, and of the poor control he has over them. When turned toward himself his anger has precipitated ideas of suicide. The inappropriate force of his anger and lack of ability to control or channel it reflect a primary weakness of personality structure. . . . In addition to these traits, the subject shows mild early signs of a disorder of his thought processes. He has poor ability to organize his thinking, he seems unable to scan or summarize his thought, becoming involved and sometimes lost in detail, and some of his thinking reflects a ‘magical’ quality, a disregard of reality. . . . He has had few close emotional relationships with other people, and these have not been able to stand small crises. He has little feeling for others outside a very small circle of friends, and attaches little real value to human life. This emotional detachment and blandness in certain areas is other evidence of his mental abnormality. More extensive evaluation would be necessary to make an exact psychiatric diagnosis, but his present personality structure is very nearly that of a paranoid schizophrenic reaction.”

  It is significant that a widely respected veteran in the field of forensic psychiatry, Dr. Joseph Satten of the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas, consulted with Dr. Jones and endorsed his evaluations of Hickock and Smith. Dr. Satten, who afterward gave the case close attention, suggests that though the crime would not have occurred except for a certain frictional interplay between the perpetrators, it was essentially the act of Perry Smith, who, he feels, represents a type of murderer described by him in an article: “Murder Without Apparent Motive—A Study in Personality Disorganization.”

  The article, printed in The American Journal of Psychiatry (July, 1960), and written in collaboration with three colleagues, Karl Menninger, Irwin Rosen, and Martin Mayman, states its aim at the outset: “In attempting to assess the criminal responsibility of murderers, the law tries to divide them (as it does all offenders) into two groups, the ‘sane’ and the ‘insane.’ The ‘sane’ murderer is thought of as acting upon rational motives that can be understood, though condemned, and the ‘insane’ one as being driven by irrational senseless motives. When rational motives are conspicuous (for example, when a man kills for personal gain) or when the irrational motives are accompanied by delusions or hallucinations (for example, a paranoid patient who kills his fantasied persecutor), the situation presents little problem to the psychiatrist. But murderers who seem rational, coherent, and controlled, and yet whose homicidal acts have a bizarre, apparently senseless quality, pose a difficult problem, if courtroom disagreements and contradictory reports about the same offender are an index. It is our thesis that the psychopathology of such murderers forms at least one specific syndrome which we shall describe. In general, these individuals are predisposed to severe lapses in ego-control which makes possible the open expression of primitive violence, born out of previous, and now unconscious, traumatic experiences.”

  The authors, as part of an appeals process, had examined four men convicted of seemingly unmotivated murders. All had been examined prior to their trials, and found to be “without psychosis” and “sane.” Three of the men were under death sentence, and the fourth was serving a long prison sentence. In each of these cases, further psychiatric investigation had been requested because someone—either the lawyer, a relative, or a friend—was dissatisfied with the psychiatric explanations previously given, and in effect had asked, “How can a person as sane as this ma
n seems to be commit an act as crazy as the one he was convicted of?” After describing the four criminals and their crimes (a Negro soldier who mutilated and dismembered a prostitute, a laborer who strangled a fourteen-year-old boy when the boy rejected his sexual advances, an Army corporal who bludgeoned to death another young boy because he imagined the victim was making fun of him, and a hospital employee who drowned a girl of nine by holding her head under water), the authors surveyed the areas of similarity. The men themselves, they wrote, were puzzled as to why they killed their victims, who were relatively unknown to them, and in each instance the murderer appears to have lapsed into a dreamlike dissociative trance from which he awakened to “suddenly discover” himself assaulting his victim. “The most uniform, and perhaps the most significant, historical finding was a long-standing, sometimes lifelong, history of erratic control over aggressive impulses. For example, three of the men, throughout their lives, had been frequently involved in fights which were not ordinary altercations, and which would have become homicidal assaults if not stopped by others.”

  Here, in excerpt, are a number of other observations contained in the study: “Despite the violence in their lives, all of the men had ego-images of themselves as physically inferior, weak, and inadequate. The histories revealed in each a severe degree of sexual inhibition. To all of them, adult women were threatening creatures, and in two cases there was overt sexual perversion. All of them, too, had been concerned throughout their early years about being considered ‘sissies,’ physically undersized or sickly. . . . In all four cases, there was historical evidence of altered states of consciousness, frequently in connection with the outbursts of violence. Two of the men reported severe dissociative trancelike states during which violent and bizarre behavior was seen, while the other two reported less severe, and perhaps less well-organized, amnesiac episodes. During moments of actual violence, they often felt separated or isolated from themselves, as if they were watching someone else. . . . Also seen in the historical background of all the cases was the occurrence of extreme parental violence during childhood. . . . One man said he was ‘whipped every time I turned around.’ . . . Another of the men had many violent beatings in order to ‘break’ him of his stammering and ‘fits,’ as well as to correct him for his allegedly ‘bad’ behavior. . . . The history relating to extreme violence, whether fantasied, observed in reality, or actually experienced by the child, fits in with the psychoanalytic hypothesis that the child’s exposure to overwhelming stimuli, before he can master them, is closely linked to early defects in ego formation and later severe disturbances in impulse control. In all of these cases, there was evidence of severe emotional deprivation in early life. This deprivation may have involved prolonged or recurrent absence of one or both parents, a chaotic family life in which the parents were unknown, or an outright rejection of the child by one or both parents with the child being raised by others. . . . Evidence of disturbances in affect organization was seen. Most typically the men displayed a tendency not to experience anger or rage in association with violent aggressive action. None reported feelings of rage in connection with the murders, nor did they experience anger in any strong or pronounced way, although each of them was capable of enormous and brutal aggression. . . . Their relationships with others were of a shallow, cold nature, lending a quality of loneliness and isolation to these men. People were scarcely real to them, in the sense of being warmly or positively (or even angrily) felt about. . . . The three men under sentence of death had shallow emotions regarding their own fate and that of their victims. Guilt, depression, and remorse were strikingly absent. . . . Such individuals can be considered to be murder-prone in the sense of either carrying a surcharge of aggressive energy or having an unstable ego defense system that periodically allows the naked and archaic expression of such energy. The murderous potential can become activated, especially if some disequilibrium is already present, when the victim-to-be is unconsciously perceived as a key figure in some past traumatic configuration. The behavior, or even the mere presence, of this figure adds a stress to the unstable balance of forces that results in a sudden extreme discharge of violence, similar to the explosion that takes place when a percussion cap ignites a charge of dynamite. . . . The hypothesis of unconscious motivation explains why the murderers perceived innocuous and relatively unknown victims as provocative and thereby suitable targets for aggression. But why murder? Most people, fortunately, do not respond with murderous outbursts even under extreme provocation. The cases described, on the other hand, were predisposed to gross lapses in reality contact and extreme weakness in impulse control during periods of heightened tension and disorganization. At such times, a chance acquaintance or even a stranger was easily able to lose his ‘real’ meaning and assume an identity in the unconscious traumatic configuration. The ‘old’ conflict was reactivated and aggression swiftly mounted to murderous proportions. . . . When such senseless murders occur, they are seen to be an end result of a period of increasing tension and disorganization in the murderer starting before the contact with the victim who, by fitting into the unconscious conflicts of the murderer, unwittingly serves to set into motion his homicidal potential.”

  Because of the many parallels between the background and personality of Perry Smith and the subjects of his study, Dr. Satten feels secure in assigning him to a position among their ranks. Moreover, the circumstances of the crime seem to him to fit exactly the concept of “murder without apparent motive.” Obviously, three of the murders Smith committed were logically motivated—Nancy, Kenyon, and their mother had to be killed because Mr. Clutter had been killed. But it is Dr. Satten’s contention that only the first murder matters psychologically, and that when Smith attacked Mr. Clutter he was under a mental eclipse, deep inside a schizophrenic darkness, for it was not entirely a flesh-and-blood man he “suddenly discovered” himself destroying, but “a key figure in some past traumatic configuration”: his father? the orphanage nuns who had derided and beaten him? the hated Army sergeant? the parole officer who had ordered him to “stay out of Kansas”? One of them, or all of them.

  In his confession, Smith said, “I didn’t want to harm the man. I thought he was a very nice gentleman. Softspoken. I thought so right up to the moment I cut his throat.” While talking to Donald Cullivan, Smith said, “They [the Clutters] never hurt me. Like other people. Like people have all my life. Maybe it’s just that the Clutters were the ones who had to pay for it.”

  So it would appear that by independent paths, both the professional and the amateur analyst reached conclusions not dissimilar.

  The aristocracy of Finney County had snubbed the trial. “It doesn’t do,” announced the wife of one rich rancher, “to seem curious about that sort of thing.” Nevertheless, the trial’s last session found a fair segment of the local Establishment seated alongside the plainer citizenry. Their presence was a courteous gesture toward Judge Tate and Logan Green, esteemed members of their own order. Also, a large contingent of out-of-town lawyers, many of whom had journeyed great distances, filled several benches; specifically, they were on hand to hear Green’s final address to the jury. Green, a suavely tough little septuagenarian, has an imposing reputation among his peers, who admire his stagecraft—a repertoire of actorish gifts that includes a sense of timing acute as a night-club comedian’s. An expert criminal lawyer, his usual role is that of defender, but in this instance the state had retained him as a special assistant to Duane West, for it was felt that the young county attorney was too unseasoned to prosecute the case without experienced support.

  But like most star turns, Green was the last act on the program. Judge Tate’s level-headed instructions to the jury preceded him, as did the county attorney’s summation: “Can there be a single doubt in your minds regarding the guilt of these defendants? No! Regardless of who pulled the trigger on Richard Eugene Hickock’s shotgun, both men are equally guilty. There is only one way to assure that these men will never again roam the towns and cities
of this land. We request the maximum penalty—death. This request is made not in vengeance, but in all humbleness. . . .”

  Then the pleas of the defense attorneys had to be heard. Fleming’s speech, described by one journalist as “soft-sell,” amounted to a mild churchly sermon: “Man is not an animal. He has a body, and he has a soul that lives forever. I don’t believe man has the right to destroy that house, a temple, in which the soul dwells. . . .” Harrison Smith, though he too appealed to the jurors’ presumed Christianity, took as his main theme the evils of capital punishment: “It is a relic of human barbarism. The law tells us that the taking of human life is wrong, then goes ahead and sets the example. Which is almost as wicked as the crime it punished. The state has no right to inflict it. It isn’t effective. It doesn’t deter crime, but merely cheapens human life and gives rise to more murders. All we ask is mercy. Surely life imprisonment is small mercy to ask. . . .” Not everyone was attentive; one juror, as though poisoned by the numerous spring-fever yawns weighting the air, sat with drugged eyes and jaws so utterly ajar bees could have buzzed in and out.

  Green woke them up. “Gentlemen,” he said, speaking without notes, “you have just heard two energetic pleas for mercy in behalf of the defendants. It seems to me fortunate that these admirable attorneys, Mr. Fleming and Mr. Smith, were not at the Clutter house that fateful night—very fortunate for them that they were not present to plead mercy for the doomed family. Because had they been there—well, come next morning we would have had more than four corpses to count.”

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