The Beginning of the Ending of Capital Punishment in America Essay

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The Beginning of the Ending of Capital Punishment in America Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” provides a brief glimpse into the mind of a killer by delving into their private inner thoughts, life experiences and possible motivations during and after they commit these horrendous crimes. Capital punishment is a widely and openly discussed topic across America today, but in the early to mid-1900 period the argument was barely debated. Capital punishment in America would change dramatically after Capote’s “In Cold Blood” brought crime and direct criminal insight directly to the public eye for the first time. The death of Smith and Hickock in 1965, and the 1966 release of “In Cold Blood” is directly proportional to the decrease in capital crime executions in America that followed. The use of capital punishment, or the death penalty as some refer to it, grew exponentially from the 1920’s to the 1940’s. The not so distinguished year of 1937 saw 197 prisoners put to death, which still stands as the unpleasant record to date (Von Drehle). This meteoric rise was largely due to a large group of criminologists claiming it was a “necessary social measure” (Part) during Prohibition and the Great Depression. Public support for capital punishment waivered from the 1940’s onward, as growing international anti-death penalty proponents gained strength. As fast as the rise of executions happened, they declined just as fast. By 1951, the number of executions had dropped to 101 for the year, and by 1959 another significant drop to 50 occurred (Von Drehle). The root cause of epic drop was the perceived inhumane ways America was choosing to carry out these sentences, as hangings were exceeding common until 1938 when the electric chair and cyanide gas became more prevalent. Perry Smith and Richard Hickock committed their horrid crime on November 15, 1959, just as the downslide in capital punishment sentences leveled out. Their timing could not be worse. The public had finally seemed to accept capital punishment and the choices America had settled on for their execution of prisoners. During questioning by police comments made by Smith, such as “I thought Mr. Clutter was a very nice gentleman... I thought so right up to the time I cut his throat” (Brooks), all but sealed their fate. Smith and Hickock were found guilty and sentenced to death on March 29, 1960, by a jury of their peers (Richard). They were to be hanged until dead. Both men appealed the verdict, and were imprisoned at the State Prison at Lansing, Kansas awaiting the appeal results. Truman Capote began researching and interviewing witnesses almost immediately after the murder happened in 1959. He spent 6 years working on the book, and much of that time was spent speaking and talking to Smith and Hickock in their cells after sentencing. He released, “In Cold Blood” in September following their death in April 14, 1965, by hanging. Capote’s writings and the following movie, explored and expounded deeply into the psyche and inner thoughts of the killers, but with much more emphasis placed on Smith. The book seemed to target Smith’s lack of education, along with perceived mental and social weakness, and painted him as an unwitting killer who deserved pity for his crime by his mental instability due to a complicated upbringing and social inadequacies. Capote does an excellent job of blurring the line between making Smith appear extremely menacing and an almost normal rational human. This was very evident when Hickock attempts to molest the daughter during the home invasion and Smith states “I despise people who can't control themselves” (Brooks) before charging up the stairs to stop him. It is though Capote is intentionally trying to sway readers and viewers to contemplate that Smith might be a good person who committed these horrid crimes in a moment of insanity. The story overall is very impactful and leaves a