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Richard Hickock and Perry Smith Trial: 1960 - Trial Leaves Questions Over Sanity, Appeals Fail To Overturn Conviction, Suggestions For Further Reading

kansas death clutter found

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
Verdict: Guilty
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.

The case of Perry Smith (above) and Richard Hickock brought the debate over capital punishment into focus. (AP/Wide World Photos) The case of Perry Smith (above) and Richard Hickock brought the debate over capital punishment into focus. (AP/Wide World Photos)

Robinson v. California - Decision, Significance, Cruel And Unusual Punishment, The Consequences, The Anti-drug Abuse Act Of 1986 [next] [back] Reynolds v. Pegler: 1954 - Reynolds Sues For Libel

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over 8 years ago

i'm writing a research paper on smiths mental state. i've yet to find anyone who pushed anyfurther on the mental status of mr. smith after he died....ever heard him diagnosed with a personality disorder or defect... or is he just born bad?

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almost 8 years ago

For any information concerning this case, you all really, really need to read Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood." It's very comprehensive and gives insight into BOTH victim and murder sides of the case, which truly adds to the depth of the overall series of murders. While I doubt you will find specific references for Mr. Smith's mental state, I suggest you reserach his personality disorder and cite the book to prove how he really could've had it (as I too believe he did).

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about 9 years ago

PS...I also am trying to find some verification of something I saw broadcast recently about this crime on A&E. It was the first time I ever heard it stated that one of the two killers actually refused to go up the steps to the gallows, and had to be carried physically. Is there any truth to this and if so, where is this documented?

Thanks
Tom

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over 9 years ago

Not quite true, Mr. Nations. Capote never wrote another full-length novel, or nonfiction book, true, but he did write again. Of course, the sale of the book brought him more money than he'd likely anticipated, and that financial freedom might have contributed to his lighter productivity in later years - who knows? Most accounts I've read dispute your apparent assertion that Wells insisted on the safe, and rather use words like "speculated" - based strictly on the fact that Clutter spent approximately $10k a month to keep his profitable farm going. As other commentators have pointed out, though, the fact that Clutter didn't like to use cash escaped Wells' - and Hickok's - attention. Your father, like all who dealt with Hickok and Smith (including Capote), came away with the story Hickok and Smith wanted to tell that day.

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about 9 years ago

Well....what DID happen in the house that night then Mr. Nations? And where can we find out the facts?

Thanks
Tom

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over 9 years ago

Your brief summary of this case is lacking concrete facts related to it. The inmate,Floyd Wells, that told KSP and KBI officials about Hickock and Smith collected a $1000 reward for doing it. In his statements to these officials he revealed how he had told Hickock about a safe with $10,000 in Herb Clutter's office. Hickock went over and over and over with Wells the floor plan of the Clutter home, and also the intimate particulars of Clutter's daughter Nancy. Hickock's repeated story to Wells about leaving no witnesses alive only became a reality when Perry Smith agreed to the plan. Hickock nor Smith could have pulled the job off alone, but together they were a perfect match of mangled emotional and psychological attributes that would enable them to drive 400 miles, slaughter 4 people that they had never met before, leave with no treasure and laugh extensively together over what they had done to the Clutter family. They had carefully gone over every detail a hundred times before they got to the Clutter home that night. Everything went sideways,however, when they discovered that there was and never had been a safe with thousands of dollars just waiting for them to help themselves to.



My father,S.M. Nations, was employed by the Wichita Eagle and Beacon and interviewed Richard Hickock on K.S.P.'s Death Row for 6 months after Hickock and Smith were sentenced to death. Mr. Capote's account of the crime chronicled in his book,"In Cold Blood", included many intentional distortions related to the two killers, KBI agent Alvin Dewey, and what actually happened inside the Clutter house that terrible night. He wrote the story he wanted his readers to believe, but he did not write what actually happened in the context of the facts. It took a huge toll on him, and he never wrote another book afterwards. He was greatly praised for his "masterpiece", but sometimes a person should be careful what they ask for, they just might get it.

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almost 7 years ago

Hey Ben, maybe you'll get to like the Air Force- zoomin' all over the sky and shouting Roger and Wilco. Maybe it won't be so bad.

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almost 9 years ago

The description of events provided re the interrogation in Las Vegas has it backwards. It was Hickock who first acknowledged the killings and blamed them all on Smith. Smith continued to deny everything and only later confessed while enroute back to Kansas in the car driven by Dewey.

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about 2 years ago

Richard Hickock and Perry Smith Trial: 1960 - Trial Leaves Questions Over Sanity, Appeals Fail To Overturn Conviction, Suggestions For Further Reading