Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Clutter Family Killings: Cold Blood


"In violence, we forget who we are."  — Mary McCarthy

The prisoners were retained at the old-fashioned but fail-safe Finney County Courthouse calaboose in Garden City; they were kept separated by wings. Each cell contained a cot, a toilet, a shower stall, a chair and a table on which they could eat their meals. Smith kept a diary from a loose leaf notebook the sheriff's wife provided. As well, somewhat of an artist, he doodled and caricatured. (During a previous prison term he had painted a portrait of Jesus that was so beautiful Chaplain Post hung it in the prison chapel, where it hung for 22 years.) Hickock, a reader, occupied his time by reading; he preferred Harold Robbins and Irving Wallace novels. While Smith had little company — his family seemed to have disowned him— Hickock, on the other hand, entertained family constantly.

A few days behind bars, Smith summoned Alvin Dewey, saying he wanted to sign his confession statement - but that it needed amending before he took pen to paper. He confessed that Dick Hickock had told the truth originally - that he, Perry - did indeed do all the killing. "I know I laid the murders of Nancy and Mrs. Clutter on him, but I wanted to fix him for being such a coward behind his brag, dropping his guts all over the floor." When asked why he was changing his mind now, Smith replied, "I thought about it, about how Mrs. Hickock'd feel a lot better knowing her son never pulled the trigger. That's why I'm setting the record straight."

Dewey later admitted that he never quite accepted the amended confession, but that, "We were not dependent on a formal confession from Smith to prove any part of our case. With or without it, we had enough to hang them ten times over." With directions given by Smith, the police had unearthed the discharged cartridge shells, the nylon cord and duct tape used on the Clutters - they had been buried on a country road — as well as Hickock's shotgun and hunting knife recovered from his bedroom at his parent's Olathe home.

Trial was slated to commence March 22, 1960. Because the defendants were without funds to hire a private lawyer, Judge Roland H. Tate, who would preside, coaxed two local attorneys, Arthur Fleming and Harrison Smith to accept the no-thanks assignments. Neither man had wanted anything to do with defending the two repellent characters, but realized, to use Harrison Smith's words, "Somebody has to do it." After which he coyly added, "But we won't be very popular around here."

Presiding Judge Roland Tate (Garden City Telegram)
Presiding Judge Roland
(Garden City Telegram)

Feelings against Hickock and Smith were aflame throughout Kansas. The closer they lived to Holcomb, where the murders took place, and Garden City, where the trial was to be conducted, the more determined was the population to see the killers hang. County Attorney Duane West, filing for prosecution, felt comfortable in making a somewhat-liable statement on Friday, January 15: "If the case goes before a jury, I will request the jury, upon finding them guilty, to sentence them to the death penalty. If the defendants waive right to jury trial and enter pleas of guilty before the judge, I will request the judge to set the death penalty."

Eight days before the court session was to open, the defense team made an effort to postpone the trial. Author Truman Capote explains. "During the past week a boldly lettered notice had begun to appear in the town's shop windows, and in banks, restaurants, and the railroad station, and it read: H.W. CLUTTER ESTATE AUCTION SALE * 21 MARCH, 1960 * AT THE CLUTTER HOMESTEAD. 'Now,' said Harrison Smith, addressing the bench, 'I realize it is almost impossible to prove prejudice. But this sale, an auction of the victim's estate, occurs one week from today - in other words, the very day before the trial begins...These signs, coupled with newspaper advertisements, and advertisements on the radio, will be a constant reminder to every citizen in the community, among whom one hundred and fifty have been called as prospective jurors.' Judge Tate was not impressed. He denied the motion without comment."

Tate was, by no means, an unfair man. He conceded that, as the law dictates, the accused be fairly judged in advance for their mental capacity to stand civil trial. City doctors were ordered to conduct a psychological interview. After consideration, they pronounced both men sane and not prone to suffer mental disorders.

Court convened Tuesday, March 22. First order of business was the selection of a jury. Not one of the summoned seemed particularly eager to serve. But, the process was completed in a surprisingly short period of four hours.

The trial proper began the following day. Public turnout was large outside the stately white walled Finney County courtroom on the third floor. The varnished benches running along the sides and in back of the room held a capacity of 160 people; they filled fast; many people were turned away. The latter lingered in the foyer for hot news. Up front were the members of the press, including a young novelist and reporter named Truman Capote, whose latest work, Breakfast at Tiffany's, had won national acclaim. He was there today on assignment from The New Yorker. His resulting articles, which first appeared in serialized form, would eventually be published under cover as the award-winning In Cold Blood.

Also in the spectator section were Richard Hickock's parents, looking very forlorn. Rumor had it that the two surviving Clutter daughters, Beverly and Eveanna, would make an appearance, but they did not attend the first nor any of the subsequent sessions. The event was just too brutal.

Some of the jurors on lunch break (Garden City Telegram)
Some of the jurors on lunch break
(Garden City Telegram)

However, Arthur Clutter was there. He had driven one hundred miles to see "the animals" who had killed his brother Herbert, he told newsmen. "The way I feel I could tear them apart." It was reported in the next edition of the local paper that Perry Smith, who had been chewing gum and was affecting a disinterested aire, happened to turn around just when Clutter's brother was entering the courtroom. Herb Clutter's brother greatly resembled him and Smith, noticing him, stopped chewing and gawked as though he was seeing a ghost.

Over the next three days, witnesses were called for the prosecution. Among others were Nancy Ewalt and Susan Kidwell, who described their discovery of Nancy Clutter's body in her blood-stained bedroom; Sheriff Robinson, recalling his initial search of the Clutter house immediately after the murders; County Coroner Robert Fenton, reading the autopsy report; and Chief Investigator Richard G. Rohleder of the Garden City police, describing the photographs he took that ultimately showed the killers' footprints.

Hickock and Smith, in the dramatic lapse of time that brought them to this moment, had almost forgotten the "witness" that Alvin Dewey claimed led to their arrest. When his name was called both twisted in the in chairs as if electrocuted. Floyd Wells, Hickock's former cellmate, appeared from the back of the court.

"Wells' passage across the courtroom toward the witness stand was oddly stealthy - as though he expected to encounter an assassin along the way," Capote noted. "As he walked past Hickock, Hickock's lips writhed as he whispered a few atrocious words. Wells pretended not to notice; but like the horse that has heard the hum of a rattlesnake, he shied away from the betrayed man's venomous vicinity."

Wells repeated the story he had told Alvin Adams in the warden's office at Lansing, this time for the benefit of the jury. He iterated his season on the Clutter farm, his imprisonment, his meeting with Richard Hickock, his discussion about the safe that he thought Clutter had kept money in. The prosecution, in attempting to prove pre-meditated murder, found Wells a gold mine.

When asked by Assistant Prosecutor Logan Green about Hickock's determination to rob the Clutters, he replied, "Hickock said that if he did rob the place, he wouldn't leave no witnesses." And when pressed further, the witness answered, "He told me he would probably tie them up and rob them and then kill them."

Smith (white shirt) on trial (Garden City Telegram)
Smith (white shirt) on trial
(Garden City Telegram)

After this "mystery witness" had concluded, the defense never rose again. They tried, hard, to discredit him, as he was a convict. But, the sign of the gaol loomed like the darkening shadows over the town outside. Their cross-examination fizzled.

The week ended with the presentation of testimony from a quartet of FBI agents, experts in ballistic and evidentiary interpretation. They had analyzed the blood samples, footprints, cartridge shells, weapon, cord and tape, and verified that these exhibits are valid evidences of the Clutter murder. Translated this meant that (according to Alvin Dewey), "The boots of Smith and Hickock matched he boot prints at the scene...Lab tests proved that the four shells were fired from the shotgun belonging to Hickock...The end on the roll of tape matched the end of one of the pieces used to gag Clutter...The blood particles found in crevices along the soles of Smith's boots and in the knife handle matched Herb Clutter's blood."

The prosecution rested.

At ten o'clock on Monday morning, March 28, the defense team began its rebuttal. By noon, the court had adjourned, their argument already concluded. Their case, simply, was pathetic. No reflection on the attorneys; they had nothing with which to fight back. They went through the motions, then called it quits with a half-hearted plea to the talesmen.

Deliberations lasted a mere forty minutes. That's all it took for the jury to decide the accused men's fates. On all accounts, it was GUILTY OF MURDER. Both men had plotted to kill and had killed each member of the Clutter family.

"And the punishment," said Judge Tate, "is death."

* * * * *

Convicted, Richard Eugene Hickock and Perry Edward Smith were ordered to Lansing Prison's Death Row. Situated in Leavenworth County, Lansing Prison (officially Kansas State Penitentiary) is a turreted stone Inferno dating back to the Civil War. It was here, on the top floor of the Segregation and Isolation Building that the two murderers were sentenced to be "hung by the neck until dead" six weeks after the trial on the unluckiest of days, Friday the thirteenth, in May.

Celebrities were numerous at the trial. Here are (l. to r.) Random House editor Joe Fox, Life magazine writer Jane Howard, author Truman Capote and Life photographer Richard Avedon. (Garden City Telegram)
Celebrities were numerous at the trial.
Here are (l. to r.) Random House editor
Joe Fox, Life magazine writer Jane Howard,
author Truman Capote and Life photo-
grapher Richard Avedon.
(Garden City Telegram)

But, their lawyers appealed the verdict on the ground that their clients were not offered counsel until after they confessed and that the physical evidence against them had been seized without a search warrant. The Appeals Court ordered an investigation into the matter. May 13, 1960, came and went.

Eventually, the defendants were assigned two top Kansas City lawyers, Joseph Jenkins and Robert Bingham, to represent the convicted men in their desperate fight for a new trial. Filing numerous petitions with the Federal court system, Bingham and Jenkins were able to fend off three other execution dates: October 25, 1962; August 8, 1963; and February, 18, 1965. Three times they carried their case to the Supreme Court, but each time the Court denied the right to further entitlement.

Finally, the Kansas Supreme Court, in March, 1965, ruled that Hickock and Smith must leave Death Row for good. But, not the way they had hoped. The final ruling called for them to be executed between midnight and 2 a.m. on April 14, 1965.

Alvin Dewey, the man who pursued them, the man who had been one of Herbert Clutter's dearest friends, was on hand that cold Wednesday morning. "My presence was not obligatory," said Dewey years later, "but I was more or less expected and, frankly, wanted to be there...As I stared at the gallows I wondered how I would react to what I was about to witness." For a brief moment, he admits he felt sorry for the condemned who knew they were going to die, and in such a way. "Then I thought of gentle Bonnie Clutter who lay tied to her bed listening to first one and then another and another shotgun blast before her turn came."

Hickock was the first to die. "I just want to say I hold no hard feelings," he told newsmen outside the execution room. "You people are sending me to a much better place than this has been." On his way to the gallows he noticed Dewey, and stopped to shake his hand. "Nice to see you," he said, then climbed the steps to the scaffold. The noose was tightened around his throat. To the chaplain's cue, "May the Lord have mercy on your soul," the hangman sprung the trap door.

A half-hour later, after Hickock's body was placed in a hearse, Perry Smith entered the same chamber. He was chewing gum, as he had done all through his trial - the trial seemed so long ago now - and he winked at Dewey. To the awaiting reporters, he said, "It would be meaningless to apologize now. But, I do apologize." And he went to his death.

By 1:19 a.m., it was all over.

* * * * *

Sunset brings an amber glow to the waves of Kansas wheat, and the waves blow rhythmically and carry that color on surge after surge of poetic dance until it melts into the horizon. Valley View Cemetery, not far from Holcomb, overlooks that cadence, and, one gets the feeling, when standing in its midst, that the spirits of the many resting there are beside you watching the opus, never tiring of the peace it brings.

Alvin Dewey, a week after the perpetrators were taken from this world, returned to visit once more with his old friends, the Clutters. All four were buried side by side under a single carved headstone. He whispered to them that he missed them, and that he had done all he could for their honor.

His hat was in his hand, and there was a tear in his eye. And for a moment he thought - he felt - that a hand had touched his shoulder. He turned around, but there was no one there. At least visibly. But, Herb Clutter stood beside him now, nevertheless, as did the others - Bonnie, Nancy and Kenyon - inhaling the peace of the dusky Kansas wheat field.

They were peaceful now, at rest. And so was their friend, the detective.


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