Study Guide

In Cold Blood Chapter 4

By Truman Capote

Chapter 4

The Corner

  • The Sheriff's Residence of the Finney County Courthouse is occupied by Undersheriff Wendle Meier and his wife Josephine, "Josie" as she's known by her friends.
  • Mrs. Meier takes care of the residence and cooks for the prisoners who reside in the six cells in the courthouse.
  • The ladies' cell is located in the residence adjoining the kitchen.
  • Perry is the first man to stay in the ladies' cell. The authorities want to keep him separate from Dick.
  • Mrs. Meier and Perry become close, and when he won't eat, she offers to make him Spanish rice, which Perry says is his favorite dish.
  • Josie tells her husband that she thinks Perry is gentle. Wendle says he wishes Josie could have seen the Clutter place after the murders. She wouldn't have thought so then.
  • The omniscient narrator (See our section on "Narrator Point of View") tells us that Perry spends most of his prison life at the table in his cell, where he eats, keeps a diary, and sketches pictures of the face of Jesus, flowers, and a wild squirrel he's named Red.
  • Surely Perry is the most sympathetic mass murderer who ever lived.
  • Note that we're still hearing way more about Perry than about Dick.
  • Then Dewey takes over the narration: Perry refuses to sign a confession until a detail is changed.
  • Earlier, he had said that Dick had killed Nancy and Mrs. Clutter.
  • Now, he wants to admit that he killed everybody, out of concern for Dick's mother's feelings.
  • The KBI agents go to the Hickocks' home and recover the gun and hunting knife used in the murders.
  • The empty cartridge shells, the cord, and the tape are found by Virgil Pietz, a highway county employee who, following directions given by Perry, dug in the location until the objects were uncovered.
  • Perry and Dick are assigned lawyers: Arthur Fleming and Harrison Smith.
  • The county attorney, Duane West, is seeking the death penalty.
  • Dick and Perry are requested to take a lie detector test concerning another murder case in which four members of a family were killed in Florida around the time they were in the area.
  • Perry had read about that case in the paper and figured it was a copycat killing of theirs.
  • They pass the lie detector test.
  • Perry dreams about being back in Alaska with his father, and wakes up having wet the bed.
  • During his father's visit to the courthouse, Dick manages to convince him of his innocence. He goes so far as to tell him that he wished he could have shot Perry before he killed the rest of the family. Admirable guy, that Dick.
  • Nobody comes to visit Perry—not his father or his sister.
  • Perry says he wishes that his sister had been in the Clutter house the night of the murder. Guess he's still angry about the letter.
  • Perry is very much alone and misses Dick; Dick's the only other person now in the same boat as him.
  • One day, Perry receives a letter and photo from Don Cullivan, who was a friend of Perry's in the army.
  • Don not only loves Perry, he loves God, and he wants to help Perry by turning him to repentance and salvation.
  • Perry doesn't remember Don, but recognizes the photo and writes back immediately, claiming to remember Don very well. He's grateful for Don's letter.
  • Dick's cell has no windows; it faces the corridor.
  • To people who observed Dick in his cell at the courthouse, he appeared to be "an unusually untroubled young man" (4.27).
  • Dick isn't as untroubled as he seems, though. He spends his time making a shiv to kill Undersheriff Meier and plans to escape to the Colorado mountains.
  • He knows he's probably going to hang and figures there's nothing to lose.
  • Plus, he has pleasant memories of some time he spent in a cabin the after being thrown out of a truck by a driver who'd picked him up hitchhiking.
  • Perry hears that Undersherriff Meier found Dick's shiv during a search of the cells. Dick's not the only one who's been plotting an escape.
  • Since he's been in jail, Perry's spotted two men in the courtyard outside his window who seem to be watching him. They come to the courtyard frequently.
  • Perry believes that they could be part of a rescue mission for himself and Dick.
  • He writes them a note detailing his escape plans, saying that all escape plans must include Dick.
  • Although he keeps the note hidden in his cell, he never sees the young men again.
  • Now the only way out seems to be suicide, by breaking a light bulb and cutting his wrists with the broken glass and "seeing the yellow bird."
  • Giving up on finding a jury of Perry and Dick's peers and a trial venue where the crime isn't known, law enforcement settles for a trial right in Garden City, with a jury who knew the Clutter family.
  • Since the accused know that their alleged actions were wrong, they can't use the insanity defense.
  • In Kansas, sanity is determined for legal purposes by the M'Naghten rule. It's an ancient British ruling that contends that if the accused knew that what he did was wrong, then he's considered sane and able to stand trial for his actions.
  • Three local doctors examined Perry and Dick and concluded that both fit the description of sanity according to M'Naghten.
  • Cut to the auction of the Clutter farm equipment, attended by 5,000 townsfolk and overseen by three of Herb's friends.
  • The last thing to go is Nancy's beloved horse Babe. Sue Kidwell runs after the animal as it's led away.
  • During jury selection, four people claim they had known Mr. Clutter but that it won't make a difference in their verdict. That sounds plausible.
  • Almost everyone, including Dick, shows up to the trial in a suit and tie. Dick's parents bought their boy clothes for the occasion.
  • Only Perry shows up in a shirt and jeans. He doesn't own a suit and there's no one to supply one for him.
  • Both Perry and Dick are asked to write an autobiographical statement for the court psychiatrist.
  • Perry's statement is full of hard luck childhood stories, while Dick's greatest hard luck story is having pretty strict parents.
  • Dick writes that he always was a hard worker and had gradually worked up to a good job at an auto dealership.
  • Oh, and around that time he developed a thing for little girls.
  • He admits this was one of the motivations for staying at the Clutter home even after he realized there was no safe there. Unaware that Perry already told this to the KBI agents, Dick admits he had planned to rape Nancy Clutter.
  • He thinks that his auto accident was the beginning of his problems.
  • After his divorce, he started drinking, and blames his subsequent criminal behavior on that also.
  • At the trial, Dick and Perry assume an air of nonchalance, except when Perry sees a man who looks exactly like Herb Clutter.
  • It's Herb's brother, Arthur, who's attending the trial to get a good look at the animals who killed his brother.
  • On the first day of the trial, Nancy Ewalt and Susan Kidwell testify about what they saw when they entered the Clutter house that terrible morning.
  • The jury hears testimony from Clarence Ewalt, Sheriff Earl Robinson, and County Coroner Robert Fenton.
  • Then Richard H. Roehler takes the stand.
  • He's the chief investigator of the Garden City Police Department. He's the one who took the pictures that revealed the prints of Perry's boot heels.
  • He also was the one who photographed the bullet-ridden corpses.
  • As the photos are entered into evidence, Dick's father jumps up to protest that Roehler is prejudiced.
  • The photographs are passed around to the jury, and they have the intended effect.
  • The day's final witness is Floyd Wells, and Dick has a few choice words for him as he walks by.
  • Wells testifies about his conversations with Dick about Herb Clutter and his safe.
  • He admits he wanted Dick to think that Mr. Clutter had a lot of money, but insists he never believed Dick would do what he said he planned to do—rob the safe and kill the family.
  • The defense tries to cast doubt on Wells's credibility—after all, he's been in and out of jail for years for lying and thieving.
  • Wells is able to collect the reward for information leading to the capture of the killers.
  • He also gets parole for his cooperation, but cue the irony, because we learn that he ended right back up in a Mississippi state prison, serving 30 years for armed robbery.
  • The defense attorneys try to argue that their clients' interrogations were aggressive and coercive.
  • This totally angers the KBI agents, who know it wasn't true.
  • The most damaging witness to the defense was Alvin Dewey, who testified about the gruesome details of Perry's confession to him.
  • This is the first time the public has heard about the horrible details.
  • He also reveals Perry's statement that Dick had intended to rape Nancy Clutter. This gets Dick's attention.
  • He states that Perry had changed his original story and confessed to all the killings, in order to spare Dick's parents the thought that their son was a murderer.
  • Hearing that, Mrs. Hickock, who has been struggling to keep her composure during the trial, completely loses it.
  • A woman reporter escorts her from the courtroom.
  • A distraught Mrs. Hickock tells her that everyone in town has been kind and generous to her, but she can't help but feel they think she's to blame for raising a murderer.
  • Many people following the trial are puzzled to see a visitor from Boston—Don Cullivan.
  • Perry's lawyer had written to Don to ask if he'd be a character witness for Perry, and Cullivan agreed, out of a religious obligation to try to save Perry's soul.
  • The Meiers invite Cullivan for dinner with Perry in his cell. It's quite the spread.
  • Perry confesses to Don that he did kill all four victims and wonders why he did it.
  • In a climactic statement, he thinks that there were a lot of people in his life who hurt him, and maybe the Clutters were just the ones that ended up paying for it.
  • Religious man and reformed convict that he is, Don tries to find out if Perry has any remorse.
  • No luck. Perry tells Don that he's not sorry for what he's done; he doesn't feel anything about it.
  • In fact, half an hour after the murders, he was laughing at Dick's jokes about the crime.
  • Don can't believe anyone could have no remorse about killing someone.
  • Perry helpfully points out that soldiers don't lose sleep over killing people; they get medals for it.
  • Not to mention the citizens of the county, who can't wait to hang Dick and Perry.
  • Cullivan doesn't know what to say.
  • Perry's honest and says he can't be hypocrital and pretend to be sorry and ask God for forgiveness when he doesn't believe it.
  • He believes that Don, by writing and offering friendship, did more for him than God ever did.
  • He says that that he ought to commit suicide right then and there while Don's around rather than die among strangers.
  • As the trial resumes, Mr. Hickock maintains his son's innocence.
  • He insists that his son wasn't the same after his car accident in 1950.
  • The courtroom psychiatrist, Dr. W. Mitchell Jones, takes the stand and says that Dick knew right from wrong when the murders occurred.
  • He wasn't allowed to elaborate, because the M'Naghten rule is pretty black and white.
  • But we see a sample of his report about Dick that says that brain damage can't be ruled out as a cause of Dick's criminal behavior after his car accident.
  • A few ineffective character witnesses are called for Perry.
  • Dr. Jones, the psychiatrist, returns to the stand to testify about his opinion about Perry's sanity.
  • He states he has no opinion. (Expert witnesses are allowed to have no opinion.)
  • That's all he's legally allowed to say.
  • But we also get to see his report about Perry, whom he believes has a pretty serious mental illness.
  • He describes his paranoid outlook about the world and his constant explosive rage.
  • He thinks Perry may suffer from paranoid schizophrenia but would need a more thorough evaluation to determine that.
  • That's why he has "no opinion."
  • We're treated to excerpts from an article entitled "Murder Without Apparent Motive—A Study in Personality Disorganization" that was written by Dr. Joseph Satten, in consultation with the courtroom psychiatrist Jones, and published in 1960 in The American Journal of Psychiatry.
  • Satten believes the murders were the fault of Perry Smith.
  • He says that people with extreme violence in their childhoods often kill when, in a high state of tension and disorganization, they see the victim-to-be as unconscious representations of their childhood trauma.
  • Pretty complex stuff, but the author points out that, in this instance, Perry and the psychiatrist have come to the same conclusion about why he murdered Herbert Clutter.
  • Remember what Perry said? The Clutters never hurt him, like other people in his life did. They just had to pay for it.
  • In their summation, the prosecution makes a strong case that there's no doubt who killed the Clutter family and no doubt what the punishment should be.
  • The defense makes a feeble plea that the death penalty, by murder or by execution, doesn't deter crime and cheapens the value of human life.
  • The last person to address the jury is senior trial lawyer Logan Green, who came in to assist the prosecutors and impress his fellow big shots in Garden City. In case they needed more convincing.
  • In a dramatic closing statement, he quotes the scriptures about the justice of killing a man who kills another man.
  • He points out that in the great state of Kansas, the punishment for murder is hanging.
  • He leads the jury through the night of the murders, emphasizing the terror of a family fearing for their lives and the agony of a mother hearing the screams of her children.
  • He leaves the verdicts and the sentences to the jurors' consciences.
  • Whew.
  • Some people think Green's summation was a masterful performance. Others think it was rabble-rousing and melodramatic.
  • There's much discussion in the trial audience about the meaning of real justice in this case. Can any human truly be 100 percent evil? Does having a rotten life give a man the license to kill?
  • The jury, however, doesn't seem to be conflicted. It takes them just 40 minutes to reach their verdict: both defendants are guilty and sentenced to death.
  • Later, in a conversation with an unnamed friend, Josie Meier talks in a flashback about how hard it was to listen to Perry cry in his cell after he heard the verdict, how he held her hand, how sad it was knowing he was going to be killed, and how much his wild pet squirrel misses him.
  • Dick and Perry are moved to the Kansas State Penitentiary for Men to wait out their time on Death Row.
  • They're scheduled to die one minute after midnight on Friday, May 13, 1960.
  • One of their neighbors on death row is Lowell Lee Andrews, an enormous youth of 18 who, after finishing the last chapter of The Brothers Karamazov, calmly gunned down his family as they watched television.
  • (Try using this story to get out of reading Dostoevsky. It won't work, but it'll be fun.)
  • Perry and Dick's execution date passes by, because the Kansas Supreme Court grants them a stay of execution pending their appeals for a new trial.
  • Perry goes on a hunger strike because he can't stand being on death row, particularly with that obnoxious Lowell Lee Andrews, who keeps correcting his grammar and acting superior.
  • Dick thinks Perry just wants attention, or to be sent to the hospital.
  • Perry is delirious much of the summer after being tube-fed during the hunger strike.
  • He wakes up to find the warden telling him he got a postcard from his father.
  • His father wants the warden to tell him what his son did wrong and asks to visit him. Perry tears up the postcard after reading it.
  • He gives up on the hunger strike, deciding he's not going to help anybody kill him.
  • Touching.
  • Two years of appeals go by.
  • Dick spends his time reading lurid novels and law books. Perry daydreams or sleeps all day.
  • Mrs. Hickock, now a widow, has visited Dick once a month.
  • Two new prisoners arrive, young soldiers convicted of murdering a railroad worker; they boast about having murdered seven others.
  • These jolly fellows think you're doing someone a favor by murdering them, because the world sucks.
  • Dick continues his letter-writing campaign protesting his innocence, and somebody finally bites.
  • Everett Steerman, chairman of the Legal Aid committee of the Kansas State Bar Association, believes Dick's complaint that he and his partner didn't get a fair trial, and they have a new hearing before a judge in Lansing.
  • The new lawyers challenge the original ruling on a number of accounts: the jurors were friends of the Clutters; the defense was inadequate; the jurors were biased in favor of the death penalty; it was a hostile trial venue. All the usual objections.
  • They succeed in getting a new trial, but after six days, the judge determines that the first trial was fair and the jurors impartial. He upholds the conviction and sentence.
  • In the meantime, Lowell Lee Andrew's turn with the hangman arrives on November 30, 1962.
  • Dick reflects on how long it took Andrews to die.
  • He has to admire Andrews, who never lied about anything he did or didn't do.
  • Dick says that everyone else on death row is a bunch of BS artists, and laughingly admits he's one of the worst.
  • He thinks that Perry hated Andrews because he had what Perry always wanted—an eduction.
  • He still thinks it's unfair that he'll hang, since he never killed anybody.
  • His mother has told him she wants to hear from Perry himself that Dick never pulled the trigger.
  • Dick remains a deep thinker, particularly on the subject of capital punishment: "Revenge is all it is, but what's wrong with revenge?"
  • Another three years pass.
  • New attorneys get the case to the U.S. Supreme Court three times, but all three times the Court refuses to hear the case.
  • Finally, on April 14, 1965, the sentence is carried out.
  • After entering the gallows chamber, Dick asks if any of the Clutter family are present. They aren't.
  • He seems disappointed. We know he approves of revenge.
  • Dick forgives and shakes hands with all of his executioners. It takes him 20 minutes to die.
  • People are surprised that he took it like a man, not a coward.
  • When Perry's turn comes, he states that he's against capital punishment, and maybe, just maybe, he had something to contribute to the world. He apologizes for what he did.
  • Dewey said later that he wasn't bothered by watching Hickock hang.
  • But Smith, the true killer, seemed like a small, wounded animal, and aroused feelings in Dewey that he couldn't shake.
  • Several years after the hangings, Dewey's visiting his mother's grave when he runs into Sue Kidwell.
  • She fills him in on what's happened in the past years.
  • Bobby Rupp has married another girl; Sue's a junior in college, an art major.
  • As Sue hurries off to meet some friends, he thinks of what Nancy Clutter would have looked like now. Then he walks toward home.
  • That's it.