Family History and Mental Mystery
I have sent countless bugs to their deaths. Does that make me a murderer? Thankfully, it does not, for the world that we live in has decided that the lives of bugs are insignificant. The same cannot be said for people, nor should it. When one human life is ended at the hands of another, the public generally demands that the killers be brought to court and to justice. Now consider this: it is 1959; four human lives, a family, for that matter, are ended at the hands of two strangers in their own home in Holcomb, Kansas. It seems almost too terrible to be true. Sadly, it is true, and those four deaths of the Clutter family ultimately result in an additional two. It is 1965; Richard Eugene Hickock and Perry Edward Smith, the culprits of these heinous crimes, are hanged by the neck until dead for committing “one of the bloodiest murders in Kansas criminal annals” (Capote, 336). It is engrained in us from a very young age that murder is bad and that there is a consequence for every action, but is it possible that we should drop the “eye for an eye” philosophy? Although it may be one of the most difficult concepts to accept, an awful deed does not constitute an awful person. There are a multitude of layers that make up a human being and some people’s, Perry Smith’s in particular, contain a plethora of information that should not be overlooked, especially in a murder case. When looking at Smith’s family background, the association of mental illness and murder, and the corruption and hypocrisy in the judicial system, it can be seen that perhaps capital punishment is not the best answer.
In 1928, Perry Edward Smith was born to rodeo performers Julia “Flo” Buckskin and John “Tex” Smith. Smith was one of four children in this more-than-dysfunctional household. Smith’s father abused his mother as well as the rest of the children. Flo Buckskin was an alcoholic in the later years of her short life and when Perry was thirteen year old, she died choking on her own vomit. The Smith children were abandoned and Perry was sent to an orphanage where he developed his aversion to nuns who beat him when he wet the bed, an alleged inevitability due to his “living off mush and Hershey kisses and condensed milk, [which] weakened [his] kidneys” (Capote, 131). This haunting and difficult childhood is not all that contributes to the Smith family history. In adulthood, tragedy did not escape the Smith family. Of the four Smith siblings, two of them took their own lives; Jimmy shot himself in the head after driving his wife to suicide, and Fern was an alcoholic, like her mother, who jumped out a window (Capote, 138). For so many traumatic events to occur in one person’s life, there is sure to be a long-lasting impact, an impact, perhaps, that could be classified as mental illness.
When brought into court, it is the year 1960. Both Hickock and Smith are given mental evaluations by Dr. Mitchell Jones to be used as a part of the testimonies if the matter of mental illness were arise and could be used as a means of defense. When it is time to testify, he is unable to give his full testimony. Why is that? Because the M’Naghten Rule states that “if the accused knew the nature of his act, and knew it was wrong, then he is mentally competent and responsible for his actions” (Capote, 267), and after Dr. Jones’ evaluation, he deemed both Hickock and Smith capable of knowing what they did was wrong. This observation, however, has nothing to do with Jones’ evaluation of Smith’s mental state. If given the chance to have testified fully, Jones would have stated that “Perry Smith shows definite signs of severe mental illness” and that his horrible actions could have been influenced by his “[growing] up without direction, without love, and without having absorbed any fixed sense of moral values” (Capote, 296). A testimony like this could not only give the jurors more information about Perry’s mental state during the crimes, but possibly change their minds about a sentence. If the M’Naghten Rule did not exist, this lack of crucial information about Perry Smith would be unlawful and considered withholding evidence, but since the rule is in place, the fairness of the trial is hindered and Smith has an even smaller chance of surviving the sentence of the jurors. Mental illness should not be condemned, it should be treated. A person, murderer or not, needs help when diagnosed with a mental deficiency. A death sentence is not going to erase this kind of illness and crimes related to it from the planet.
Let us touch upon fairness in the court. Is it not interesting that the establishment that enforces the rules is the one that breaks them? On December 15, 1791, a series of ten amendments were ratified as The Bill of Rights. As the court responsible for the murder cases of Richard Hickock and Perry Smith clearly forgot, Amendment VI states,
“In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed” (The Bill of Rights).
This basic right is utterly abolished when the jurors are chosen for the case. It was thought by most that the choosing of the jury would take a few days, but on the contrary. The jury was chosen within four hours. Let us not mention that twenty-one of the candidates were dismissed because “they opposed capital punishment” (Capote, 272). The men that were elected for the jury are “all family men (several had five children or more), and were seriously affiliated with one or another of the local churches” (Capote, 272). The final comprised jury is less a jury of Hickock and Smith’s peers than a jury of their opponents, their victims, a jury of Herb Clutters. Somehow it does not seem fair to be put on trial to be judged by a group of men just like the one against whom the crime was committed.
If rule breaking by the court is not enough hypocrisy, let us take another look into the system. It is June 22, 1965; Richard Eugene Hickock and Perry Edward Smith are to be hanged for their crimes against the four members of the Clutter family. Each man respectively walks up to the gallows to speak their final words before their execution. Hickock lets the spectators know that “[they are] sending [him] to a better place than this” (GCPD). When it is Smith’s turn, he speaks a few more words than Hickock:
“I think it is a hell of a thing that a life has to be taken in this manner. I say this especially because there’s a great deal I could have offered society. I certainly think capital punishment is legally and morally wrong. Any apology for what I have done would be meaningless at this time. I don’t have any animosities toward anyone involved in this matter. I think that is all” (GCPD).
As each man is hanged, the chaplain reads from the Bible, “The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away” (Capote, 338). For a moment, forget that there is supposed to be a separation of church and state; it is not important for the sake of this argument. If the court is a religious organization that believes in the teachings of the Bible, is it not written that “Thou shalt not kill” (Exodus 20 King James Version)? And is it not true that that is exactly what the court has done to Richard Hickock and Perry Smith? An establishment as influential as the court should not contradict itself in so many ways, especially when the result of that contradiction is the loss of a man’s life.
Murder is an awful thing, please do not misunderstand, but even murderers have the right to a fair trial, just as they should have the right to mental treatment. A criminal with mental illness deserves just as much medical care as a non-criminal. Perry Smith was not a bad man, he was a man that did a bad thing. He was a mentally ill man whose past and family history affected him in such a way that he should have received help. He did not deserve to die the way he did. It is people like Perry Smith that are perfect examples of how we can learn from our mistakes. Hopefully, in the future, we will be able to understand that mental illness should be treated, rather than feared, and that we are not such saints, ourselves. I think that is all.