In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

  “He just wants to get out of here. Play-acting. So they’ll say he’s crazy and put him in the crazy house.”

  Dick afterward grew fond of quoting Andrews’ reply, for it seemed to him a fine specimen of the boy’s “funny thinking,” his “off on a cloud” complacency. “Well,” Andrews allegedly said, “it sure strikes me a hard way to do it. Starving yourself. Because sooner or later we’ll all get out of here. Either walk out—or be carried out in a coffin. Myself, I don’t care whether I walk or get carried. It’s all the same in the end.”

  Dick said, “The trouble with you, Andy, you’ve got no respect for human life. Including your own.”

  Andrews agreed. “And,” he said, “I’ll tell you something else. If ever I do get out of here alive, I mean over the walls and clear out—well, maybe nobody will know where Andy went, but they’ll sure hell know where Andy’s been.”

  All summer Perry undulated between half-awake stupors and sickly, sweat-drenched sleep. Voices roared through his head; one voice persistently asked him, “Where is Jesus? Where?” And once he woke up shouting, “The bird is Jesus! The bird is Jesus!” His favorite old theatrical fantasy, the one in which he thought of himself as “Perry O’Parsons, The One-Man Symphony,” returned in the guise of a recurrent dream. The dream’s geographical center was a Las Vegas night-club where, wearing a white top hat and a white tuxedo, he strutted about a spotlighted stage playing in turn a harmonica, a guitar, a banjo, drums, sang “You Are My Sunshine,” and tap-danced up a short flight of gold-painted prop steps; at the top, standing on a platform, he took a bow. There was no applause, none, and yet thousands of patrons packed the vast and gaudy room—a strange audience, mostly men and mostly Negroes. Staring at them, the perspiring entertainer at last understood their silence, for suddenly he knew that these were phantoms, the ghosts of the legally annihilated, the hanged, the gassed, the electrocuted—and in the same instant he realized that he was there to join them, that the gold-painted steps had led to a scaffold, that the platform on which he stood was opening beneath him. His top hat tumbled; urinating, defecating, Perry O’Parsons entered eternity.

  One afternoon he escaped from a dream and wakened to find the warden standing beside his bed. The warden said, “Sounds like you were having a little nightmare?” But Perry wouldn’t answer him, and the warden, who on several occasions had visited the hospital and tried to persuade the prisoner to cease his fast, said, “I have something here. From your father. I thought you might want to see it.” Perry, his eyes glitteringly immense in a face now almost phosphorescently pale, studied the ceiling; and presently, after placing a picture postcard on the patient’s bedside table, the rebuffed visitor departed.

  That night Perry looked at the card. It was addressed to the warden, and postmarked Blue Lake, California; the message, written in a familiar stubby script, said: “Dear Sir, I understand you have my boy Perry back in custody. Write me please what did he do wrong and if I come there could I see him. Alls well with me and trust the same with you. Tex J. Smith.” Perry destroyed the card, but his mind preserved it, for the few crude words had resurrected him emotionally, revived love and hate, and reminded him that he was still what he had tried not to be—alive. “And I just decided,” he later informed a friend, “that I ought to stay that way. Anybody wanted my life wasn’t going to get any more help from me. They’d have to fight for it.”

  The next morning he asked for a glass of milk, the first sustenance he had volunteered to accept in fourteen weeks. Gradually, on a diet of eggnogs and orange juice, he regained weight; by October the prison physician, Dr. Robert Moore, considered him strong enough to be returned to the Row. When he arrived there, Dick laughed and said, “Welcome home, honey.”

  Two years passed.

  The departures of Wilson and Spencer left Smith and Hickock and Andrews alone with the Row’s burning lights and veiled windows. The privileges granted ordinary prisoners were denied them; no radios or card games, not even an exercise period—indeed, they were never allowed out of their cells, except each Saturday when they were taken to a shower room, then given a once-weekly change of clothing; the only other occasions for momentary release were the far-between visits of lawyers or relatives. Mrs. Hickock came once a month; her husband had died, she had lost the farm, and, as she told Dick, lived now with one relative, now another.

  It seemed to Perry as though he existed “deep underwater”—perhaps because the Row usually was as gray and quiet as ocean depths, soundless except for snores, coughs, the whisper of slippered feet, the feathery racket of the pigeons nesting in the prison walls. But not always. “Sometimes,” Dick wrote in a letter to his mother, “you can’t hear yourself think. They throw men in the cells downstairs, what they call the hole, and plenty of them are fighting mad and crazy to boot. Curse and scream the whole time. It’s intolerable, so everybody starts yelling shut up. I wish you’d send me earplugs. Only they wouldn’t allow me to have them. No rest for the wicked, I guess.”

  The little building had been standing for more than a century, and seasonal changes provoked different symptoms of its antiquity: winter cold saturated the stone-and-iron fixtures, and in summer, when temperatures often hurtled over the hundred mark, the old cells were malodorous cauldrons. “So hot my skin stings,” Dick wrote in a letter dated July 5, 1961. “I try not to move much. I just sit on the floor. My bed’s too sweaty to lie down, and the smell makes me sick because of only the one bath a week and always wearing the same clothes. No ventilation whatever and the light bulbs make everything hotter. Bugs keep bumping on the walls.”

  Unlike conventional prisoners, the condemned are not subjected to a work routine; they can do with their time what they like—sleep all day, as Perry frequently did (“I pretend I’m a tiny little baby that can’t keep its eyes open”); or, as was Andrews’ habit, read all night. Andrews averaged fifteen to twenty books a week; his taste encompassed both trash and belles-lettres, and he liked poetry, Robert Frost’s particularly, but he also admired Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and the comic poems of Ogden Nash. Though the quenchless quality of his literary thirst had soon depleted the shelves of the prison library, the prison chaplain and others sympathetic to Andrews kept him supplied with parcels from the Kansas City public library.

  Dick was rather a bookworm, too; but his interest was restricted to two themes—sex, as represented in the novels of Harold Robbins and Irving Wallace (Perry, after being lent one of these by Dick, returned it with an indignant note: “Degenerate filth for filthy degenerate minds!”), and law literature. He consumed hours each day leafing through law books, compiling research that he hoped would help reverse his conviction. Also, in pursuit of the same cause he fired off a cannonade of letters to such organizations as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Kansas State Bar Association—letters attacking his trial as a “travesty of due process,” and urging the recipients to aid him in his quest for a new trial. Perry was persuaded to draft similar pleas, but when Dick suggested that Andy follow their example by writing protests in his own behalf, Andrews replied, “I’ll worry about my neck and you worry about yours.” (Actually, Dick’s neck was not the part of his anatomy that most immediately troubled him. “My hair is coming out by the handfuls,” he confided in yet another letter to his mother. “I’m frantic. Nobody in our family was baldheaded as I can recall, and it makes me frantic the idea of being an ugly old baldhead.”)

  The Row’s two night guards, arriving at work on an autumn evening in 1961, had a piece of news. “Well,” one of them announced, “seems like you boys can expect company.” The import of the remark was clear to his audience: it meant that two young soldiers, who had been standing trial for the murder of a Kansas railroad worker, had received the ultimate sentence. “Yessir,” the guard said, confirming this, “they got the death penalty.” Dick said, “Sure. It’s very popular in Kansas. Juries hand it out like they were giving candy to kids.”

  One of the soldiers, George Ronald York,
was eighteen; his companion, James Douglas Latham, was a year older. They were both exceptionally personable, which perhaps explains why hordes of teen-aged girls had attended their trial. Though convicted of a single slaying, the pair had claimed seven victims in the course of a cross-country murder spree.

  Ronnie York, blond and blue-eyed, had been born and raised in Florida, where his father was a well-known, well-paid deep-sea diver. The Yorks had a pleasantly comfortable home life, and Ronnie, overloved and overpraised by his parents and a worshipful younger sister, was the adored center of it. Latham’s background was at the opposite extreme, being every bit as bleak as Perry Smith’s. Born in Texas, he was the youngest child of fertile, moneyless, embattled parents who, when finally they separated, left their progeny to fend for themselves, to scatter hither and thither, loose and unwanted as bundles of Panhandle tumbleweed. At seventeen, in need of a refuge, Latham enlisted in the Army; two years later, found guilty of an AWOL offense, he was imprisoned in the stockade at Fort Hood, Texas. It was there that he met Ronnie York, who was also under sentence for having gone AWOL. Though they were very unlike—even physically, York being tall and phlegmatic, whereas the Texan was a short young man with foxy brown eyes animating a compact, cute little face—they found they shared at least one firm opinion: the world was hateful, and everybody in it would be better off dead. “It’s a rotten world,” Latham said. “There’s no answer to it but meanness. That’s all anybody understands—meanness. Burn down the man’s barn—he’ll understand that. Poison his dog. Kill him.” Ronnie said Latham was “one hundred percent correct,” adding, “Anyway, anybody you kill, you’re doing them a favor.”

  The first person they chose to so favor were two Georgia women, respectable housewives who had the misfortune to encounter York and Latham not long after the murderous pair escaped from the Fort Hood stockade, stole a pickup truck, and drove to Jacksonville, Florida, York’s home town. The scene of the encounter was an Esso station on the dark outskirts of Jacksonville; the date was the night of May 29, 1961. Originally, the absconding soldiers had traveled to the Florida city with the intention of visiting York’s family; once there, however, York decided it might be unwise to contact his parents; his father sometimes had quite a temper. He and Latham talked it over, and New Orleans was their new destination when they stopped at the Esso station to buy gas. Alongside them another car was imbibing fuel; it contained the two matronly victims-to-be, who, after a day of shopping and pleasure in Jacksonville, were returning to their homes in a small town near the Florida-Georgia border. Alas, they had lost their way. York, from whom they asked directions, was most obliging: “You just follow us. We’ll put you on the right road.” But the road to which he led them was very wrong indeed: a narrow side-turning that petered off into swamp. Nevertheless, the ladies followed along faithfully until the lead vehicle halted, and they saw, in the shine of their headlights, the helpful young men approaching them on foot, and saw, but too late, that each was armed with a black bullwhip. The whips were the property of the stolen truck’s rightful custodian, a cattleman; it had been Latham’s notion to use them as garrotes—which, after robbing the women, is what they did. In New Orleans the boys bought a pistol and carved two notches in the handle.

  During the next ten days notches were added in Tullahoma, Tennessee, where they acquired a snappy red Dodge convertible by shooting the owner, a traveling salesman; and in an Illinois suburb of St. Louis, where two more men were slain. The Kansas victim, who followed the preceding five, was a grandfather; his name was Otto Ziegler, he was sixty-two, a robust, friendly fellow, the sort not likely to pass distressed motorists without offering assistance. While spinning along a Kansas highway one fine June morning, Mr. Ziegler spied a red convertible parked by the roadside, its hood up, and a couple of nice-looking youngsters fiddling with the motor. How was the good-hearted Mr. Ziegler to know that nothing ailed the machine—that this was a ruse devised to rob and kill would-be Samaritans? His last words were, “Anything I can do?” York, at a distance of twenty feet, sent a bullet crashing through the old man’s skull, then turned to Latham and said, “Pretty good shootin’, huh?”

  Their final victim was the most pathetic. It was a girl, only eighteen; she was employed as a maid in a Colorado motel where the rampaging pair spent a night, during which she let them make love to her. Then they told her they were on their way to California, and invited her to come along. “Come on,” Latham urged her, “maybe we’ll all end up movie stars.” The girl and her hastily packed cardboard suitcase ended up as blood-soaked wreckage at the bottom of a ravine near Craig, Colorado; but not many hours after she had been shot and thrown there, her assassins were in fact performing before motion-picture cameras.

  Descriptions of the red car’s occupants, provided by witnesses who had noticed them loitering in the area where Otto Ziegler’s body was discovered, had been circulated through the Midwest and Western states. Roadblocks were erected, and helicopters patrolled the highways; it was a roadblock in Utah that caught York and Latham. Later, at Police Headquarters in Salt Lake City, a local television company was allowed to film an interview with them. The result, if viewed without sound, would seem to concern two cheerful, milkfed athletes discussing hockey or baseball—anything but murder and the roles, boastfully confessed, they had played in the deaths of seven people. “Why,” the interviewer asks, “why did you do it?” And York, with a self-congratulatory grin, answers, “We hate the world.”

  All five of the states that vied for the right to prosecute York and Latham endorse judicial homicide: Florida (electrocution), Tennessee (electrocution), Illinois (electrocution), Kansas (hanging), and Colorado (lethal gas). But because it had the firmest evidence, Kansas was victorious.

  The men on the Row first met their new companions November 2, 1961. A guard, escorting the arrivals to their cells, introduced them: “Mr. York, Mr. Latham, I’d like you to know Mr. Smith here. And Mr. Hickock. And Mr. Lowell Lee Andrews— ‘the nicest boy in Wolcott!’ ”

  When the parade had passed, Hickock heard Andrews chuckling, and said, “What’s so funny about that sonofabitch?”

  “Nothing,” Andrews said. “But I was thinking: when you count my three and your four and their seven, that makes fourteen of them and five of us. Now five into fourteen averages out—”

  “Four into fourteen,” Hickock curtly corrected him. “There are four killers up here and one railroaded man. I’m no goddam killer. I never touched a hair on a human head.”

  Hickock continued writing letters protesting his conviction, and one of these at last bore fruit. The recipient, Everett Steerman, Chairman of the Legal Aid Committee of the Kansas State Bar Association, was disturbed by the allegations of the sender, who insisted that he and his co-defendant had not had a fair trial. According to Hickock, the “hostile atmosphere” in Garden City had made it impossible to empanel an unbiased jury, and therefore a change of venue should have been granted. As for the jurors that were chosen, at least two had clearly indicated a presumption of guilt during the voir dire examination (“When asked to state his opinion of capital punishment, one man said that ordinarily he was against it, but in this case no”); unfortunately, the voir dire had not been recorded because Kansas law does not require it unless a specific demand is made. Many of the jurors, moreover, were “well acquainted with the deceased. So was the judge. Judge Tate was an intimate friend of Mr. Clutter.”

  But the bulkiest of Hickock’s mudpies was aimed at the two defense attorneys, Arthur Fleming and Harrison Smith, whose “incompetence and inadequacy” were the chief cause of the correspondent’s present predicament, for no real defense had been prepared or offered by them, and this lack of effort, it was implied, had been deliberate—an act of collusion between the defense and the prosecution.

  These were grave assertions, reflecting upon the integrity of two respected lawyers and a distinguished district judge, but if even partially true, then the constitutional rights of the defendants ha
d been abused. Prompted by Mr. Steerman, the Bar Association undertook a course of action without precedent in Kansas legal history: it appointed a young Wichita attorney, Russell Shultz, to investigate the charges and, should evidence warrant it, challenge the validity of the conviction by bringing habeas corpus proceedings in the Kansas Supreme Court, which had recently upheld the verdict.

  It would appear that Shultz’s investigation was rather one-sided, since it consisted of little more than an interview with Smith and Hickock, from which the lawyer emerged with crusading phrases for the press: “The question is this—do poor, plainly guilty defendants have a right to a complete defense? I do not believe that the State of Kansas would be either greatly or for long harmed by the death of these appellants. But I do not believe it could ever recover from the death of due process.”

  Shultz filed his habeas corpus petition, and the Kansas Supreme Court commissioned one of its own retired justices, the Honorable Walter G. Thiele, to conduct a full-scale hearing. And so it came to pass that almost two years after the trial, the whole cast reassembled in the courtroom at Garden City. The only important participants absent were the original defendants; in their stead, as it were, stood Judge Tate, old Mr. Fleming, and Harrison Smith, whose careers were imperiled—not because of the appellant’s allegations per se, but because of the apparent credit the Bar Association bestowed upon them.

  The hearing, which at one point was transferred to Lansing, where Judge Thiele heard Smith and Hickock testify, took six days to complete; ultimately, every point was covered. Eight jurors swore they had never known any member of the slain family; four admitted some slight acquaintance with Mr. Clutter, but each, including N. L. Dunnan, the airport operator who had made the controversial reply during the voir dire, testified that he had entered the jurybox with an unprejudiced mind. Shultz challenged Dunnan: “Do you feel, sir, that you would have been willing to go to trial with a juror whose state of mind was the same as yours?” Dunnan said yes, he would; and Shultz then said, “Do you recall being asked whether or not you were averse to capital punishment?” Nodding, the witness answered, “I told them under normal conditions I would probably be averse to it. But with the magnitude of this crime I could probably vote in favor.”

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