Richard Hickock and Perry Smith Trial: 1960
Richard Hickock And Perry Smith Trial:
Defendants: Richard E. Hickock and Perry E. Smith
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: Arthur Fleming and Harrison Smith
Chief Prosecutors: Logan Greene and Duane West
Judge: Roland H. Tate
Place: Garden City, Kansas
Dates of Trial: March 22-29, 1960
Sentence: Death by hanging
SIGNIFICANCE: The case provided a classic example of the limitations of the M'Naghten Test by which defendants are judged mentally fit to stand trial. Truman Capote's book about the case, In Cold Blood, further cemented the author's literary reputation and brought the debate over capital punishment into focus for millions of readers worldwide.
The people of Holcomb, Kansas, had not forgotten them, but the trial and punishment of Richard Hickock and Perry Smith came and went unnoticed by most Americans. Within months of their execution, however, Smith and Hickock became two of the most famous murderers in history.
On Sunday morning, November 15, 1959, a successful, respected, and well-liked Kansas farmer named Herbert Clutter was found in the basement of his home with his throat cut and his head blown open by a shotgun blast. His wife Bonnie and their teenaged children, Kenyon and Nancy, were found bound, gagged, and shot to death elsewhere in the house. There were no clues nor any apparent motive. "This is apparently the work of a psychopathic killer," declared the local sheriff.
The bloody slayings might have remained unsolved without the help of a convicted thief, who had once shared a cell with a small-time check kiter named Richard Hickock. The thief had worked on the Clutter farm and described it to Hickock, who asked if the Clutters had a safe. The thief thought they did. Hickock declared that he would find the farm, rob the Clutters, and kill all witnesses, adding that his former cellmate Perry Smith would be just the man to help. Herb Clutter's former hired hand dismissed Hickock's plan as a fantasy, but he came forward when he heard of the murders.
Hickock and Smith were soon arrested in Las Vegas, Nevada, for parole violation and passing bad checks. The Kansas Bureau of Investigation dispatched agents to Nevada, where they questioned the suspects separately. Hickock denied any knowledge of the slayings, but a clever interrogation led Smith to confess to having shot the Clutters. Hickock confessed his part in the slayings the next day and the two men were returned to Kansas for trial.
The gruesome confessions and physical evidence made it clear that the accused men were responsible for the killings. Arguing for the death penalty, prosecutor Logan Greene said, "some of our most enormous crimes only happen because once upon a time a pack of chicken-hearted jurors refused to do their duty." The jury deliberated for only 40 minutes before returning a guilty verdict, ironically about a minute for each dollar Smith and Hickock had found in the Clutter home—there was no safe. "No chicken-hearted jurors, they," Smith joked as he and Hickock were led laughing from the courtroom. Judge Roland Tate sentenced the defendants to death by hanging.
Trial Leaves Questions Over Sanity
Yet the way the trial was conducted left lingering questions. A defense motion to have Smith and Hickock undergo comprehensive psychological testing before the trial had been denied by Judge Tate, who appointed three local general practitioners, not psychiatrists, to make the required examination. After a brief interview, the doctors judged the defendants sane.
Defense lawyers had sought the opinion of a more experienced psychiatrist from the state mental hospital, who diagnosed definite signs of mental illness in Smith and felt that Hickock's head injuries in a past auto mishap might possibly have affected his behavior. Yet the diagnosis was never heard in the Finney County courthouse.
Under the M'Naghten Test a defendant is ruled to be sane if he has sufficient mental capacity to know and understand what he is doing at the time he commits a crime, that it is wrong, and that it violates the victim's rights. The M'Naghten Test was applied strictly in the Hickock-Smith trial. By Kansas law, the psychiatrist was allowed only to give his opinion about the defendants' sanity or lack thereof at the time they were in the Clutter house. Under this constraint, the psychiatrist could only answer "yes" when asked if he thought Hickock was sane by the M'Naghten definition and "no" when asked if he could surmise what Smith's state of mind was at the time of the killings. No comment was allowed on the question of whether Perry Smith was mentally able to control his actions, regardless of his knowledge that, they were unlawful.
Appeals Fail to Overturn Conviction
Richard Hickock's complaints to the Kansas Bar Association about the fairness of the trial prompted an investigation. The arguable mishandling of the case by the defense lawyers, failure to move the trial venue outside of Finney County, and the acceptance of a juror who had made questionable statements about the suitability of capital punishment in the case opened the way for four appeals and postponements of the death sentence. Court-appointed federal lawyers tried three times to have the Hickock-Smith case heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, but each time the court declined without comment. Hickock and Smith were hanged at the Kansas State Penitentiary on April 14, 1965, five years after their conviction.
The hangings provided an ending for a book Truman Capote had been working on since the weeks when the Clutter murders were still unsolved. A brief notice of the crime in the New York Times had inspired Capote to choose it as the subject for what he called a "nonfiction novel," a factually correct work written with techniques usually employed in writing fiction.
Capote interviewed everyone connected with the case, from the Clutters' neighbors to Hickock and Smith themselves. After the killers were captured, he followed their trials and became their confidant. When his book, In Cold Blood, appeared at the end of 1965, the lives and deaths of the Clutters and their killers became intimately known to millions of Americans. In Cold Blood was an international best-seller and the basis for a 1967 film.
Capote's experience left him opposed to capital punishment. Instead, he favored the federal imposition of mandatory life sentences for murder. By the time the Supreme Court issued the famous "Miranda Ruling" (see separate entry) in 1966, the writer's celebrity as an authority on criminal matters was such that he was called upon by a U.S. Senate subcommittee examining the court's decision. Capote criticized the high court's opinion that arrested suspects were to be advised of their rights to silence, legal counsel, and the presence of an attorney during police questioning.
Hickock and Smith would have gone "scot-free" under such circumstances because of the lack of clues in the Clutter murders, Capote said. "Any lawyer worth his salt would have advised the boys to say nothing. Had they said nothing, they would not have been brought to trial, much less convicted." Special Agent Alvin Dewey, who had elicited Perry Smith's confession, agreed. Dewey told the subcommittee that investigators abiding by the Miranda rule would be "talking the defendant out of telling us anything."
—Thomas C. Smith
Suggestions for Further Reading
Capote, Truman. In Cold Blood. New York: Random House, 1965.
Clarke, Gerald. Capote: A Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986.
Marshall, James. Intention —In Law and Society. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1968.
Menninger, Karl, M.D. The Crime of Punishment. New York: Viking Press, 1966.
Plimpton, George. "The Story Behind a Nonfiction Novel." New, York Times Book Review (January 16, 1966): 2-3.