To Kill Those Who Kill: A Meditation on Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood

When I was in early high school, I impulsively bought a DVD copy of the Bennett Miller film Capote from a Half Price Books store. Shortly after, I watched the film with my father, who found it beautiful and engaging; it was the first time I remember him complimenting a film I had chosen for its important moral and intellectual content.

I eventually returned the same store and bought the book on which the film was based, Capote’s In Cold Blood. Little did I know, it would be close to seven years before I actually read that book, and it wouldn’t even be the same copy. (I ended up lending the book to a friend, who never returned it.)

I finally committed to reading the book this semester. It took close to two months, as I had to force myself to read in the late hours after I had finished poorly composed counterpoint assignments from my music theory class and weekend filming for my senior documentary project, but it did not take long for the book to get me invested in its subject matter and prose.

I am honestly nervous to write about In Cold Blood. It’s already been written about in so many different ways. I’m sure just as many–if not more–conversations have been had about it that have said even more. A short while before I finished the book, I actually had a friend discuss it with me, saying he had read it for a class on crime & punishment (the acts of, not the novel) three years ago.

This essentially is what Capote was writing about. In an quasi-revolutionary way for the time in which the book was written, he humanized men that, in my opinion, we would still find difficult to sympathize with today, if we were as invested in the case as those in the story (and possibly, even if we were not). He questioned the death penalty and asked whether we could truly consider ourselves “the better people” for killing men who had killed.

In this age of social media, I imagine myself scrolling down my Facebook Newsfeed and happening upon a short video on the death of the Clutters. I’d watch it momentarily before thinking, How could anyone do such a thing? and continue down the feed, almost forgetting about it before someone else, who had seen the same video, would bring it up to me later that day. We’d talk about it and agree that These were horrible men, and maybe why do they still get to live when that poor family was dead. (Side note: I feel that I should say that I am–and always have been–against the death penalty.)

But from this video, I would have gained as little understanding of the defendants as many of the people who called for their deaths in Kansas. That is not to say anything they did was right, but what Capote wanted, I think, was not to absolve them of their guilt but, rather, to make their accusers understand, as F. Scott Fitzgerald put it many years before in The Great Gatsby:

‘Whenever you feel like criticizing any one’… ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’

Despite their crimes, Perry Smith & Richard Hickock were still people. Both of them came from a life that none of the jurors–not even the judge–knew about. Whether or not this information would have made them more sympathetic, I do not know, but Capote argues that without it, they were not in a place to ‘criticize’ (read: ‘judge’) the defendants.

[SORT OF SPOILER ALERT] The part of the book that, in my opinion, most powerfully conveyed this, was the questioning of the psychiatrist Dr. Jones. Limited to answering each question with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ without elaboration, Jones was not allowed to share his more detailed findings, which may have gotten both men out of their death sentences on cases of mental instability. [END OF SPOILER]

I think Capote’s message is timeless. Whether it is deciding someone’s life during a trial or simply treating a person differently  because of your perception of who they might be, we all need to remember that there are facts we will always be missing about that person’s life and where they come from, so we must always question when and if ever it is our place to judge.