In the book In Cold Blood, why was Perry convicted of premeditated murder? When does the text mention his wanting to kill the Clutter family?

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In the book In Cold Blood, author Truman Capote chronicles the brutal murder of the Clutter family in rural Kansas in the 1960's. Capote spent a great deal of time interviewing the accused murderers, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith. Perry Smith was convicted of premeditated murder because the two planned the home invasion and, at Perry’s urging, they killed the Clutters to eliminate any witnesses to their crime. Moreover, Perry admits that he actually committed the killings.

The irony and horrible inherent contradiction within the book is that the killers can appear to be sympathetic at times. For instance, when Dick tells Perry about his family, Perry says, “I understand ... They’re good people. She’s a real sweet person, your mother.” Also, Capote notes of Perry’s response to The Lord’s Prayer that, “the hymn’s grave language sung in so credulous a spirit moved him.”

The depiction of Dick and Perry as polite young men occurs so often, that at times the reader nearly does a double take when the text converts horribly and suddenly. For example, the first mention of Perry wanting to kill the Clutter family comes as a shock to the reader. Perry says:

Just before I taped him, Mr. Clutter asked me—and these were his last words—wanted to know how his wife was, if she was all right, and I said she was fine, she was ready to go to sleep, and I told him it wasn’t long till morning, and how in the morning somebody would find them, and then all of it, me and Dick and all, would seem like something they dreamed. I wasn’t kidding him. I didn’t want to harm the man. I thought he was a very nice gentleman. Soft-spoken. I thought so right up to the moment I cut his throat.

That last line, said so casually, is chilling and the reader is tempted to re-read it in the mistaken notion that it is in accurate. How could a person kill a “very nice gentleman” who is so “soft-spoken?” The answer is that it can only happen “in cold blood.”

Then Perry asks Dick:

“Well, Dick. Any qualms?” He didn’t answer me. I said, “Leave them alive, and this won’t be any small rap. Ten years the very least.”

This quote makes it clear that the killings occurred at Perry’s initiation.

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In Cold Blood tells the tale of a Kansas family that was brutally murdered for what, at the time, seemed like no reason at all. Late at night on November 15, 1959, two ex-convicts Richard Hickock and Perry Smith entered the house of the Clutter family with the intentions to steal a safe that was believed to be full of money. A cellmate had told the two about the wealthy family and the safe when they were in prison (Buchanan, 2011).

After entering the house under a cloak of darkness, neither Richard nor Perry could locate the safe. During the search, they woke Herb. At that time, Herb tried to give the intruders what money he had in hopes that they would leave and not hurt his family. Sadly, that did not stop the urge to find the safe, and after searching for it again, the two suspects woke up the rest of the family (Buchanan, 2011). That was when things started to go from a home invasion scene to a murder scene.

The family members were separated into different rooms, bound, all but one gaged, and eventually brutally murdered (Buchanan, 2011). The father, Herb, had his throat cut and was shot in the head with a shotgun (Capote, 1966). The mother, son, and daughter were also shot in the head with a shotgun; the murder scene was one of the most brutal crimes that had ever occurred in Holcomb—or in Kansas for that matter. It seemed at first like the family was killed for no reason; it was not until weeks later that the investigators heard from the cellmate of the two criminals and the information about motive to find the safe would come to light (Capote, 1966).

Capote’s In Cold Blood recounts Perry Smith’s confession to Alvin Dewey and Clarence Duntz. Perry said, “I didn’t want to harm the man. I thought he was a very nice gentleman. Soft-spoken. I thought so right up to the moment I cut his throat.” Although Perry claims that Dick was responsible for the murders of Nancy and Mrs. Clutter, the readers get the impression that, in the end, Dick did not have the stomach to murder anyone and Perry was likely to have been responsible for all of them.

At a minimum, we know Perry killed Mr. Clutter, likely because he wanted to impress Dick and also because Mr. Clutter represented a way of life that would never be attainable to him. He was and always would be an outcast—damaged goods. He was an ex-con that would never be able to live a respectable life like Herb Clutter and his family. Perry killing them was his way of lashing out at a world that has always shunned and mistreated him.

Works Cited

Buchanan, Michael. November 15, 1959, Four Members of Herbert Clutter Family Murdered, Today in Crime History, 2011.

Capote, Truman. In Cold Blood. Random House, 1966.

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Truman Capote's In Cold Blood is a riveting journey through the gruesome yet true tale of the murder of the Clutter family in Kansas. 

Perry Smith and Dick Hickock had both been recently paroled from the Kansas State Penitentiary when they decided to seek out the Clutter family. An old cellmate of Dick's had worked as a farmhand for Mr. Clutter and told Dick that Herb Clutter always kept lots of money locked in a safe in his house in Holcomb. Perry and Dick hatched a plan to drive across Kansas to break into the Clutter home, steal the money and leave no witnesses.

It is because of their intent to rob (and eventually kill) this specific family that it can be classified as premeditated. Though they may not have intended to kill the family when they first set out on the road, the fact that they tracked that specific family down, robbed, bound, gagged them and killed them, makes it first degree murder. 

Furthermore Perry felt especially guilty for killing the Clutter family. He wanted to claim responsibility for all four killings because he felt sorry for Dick's mother, who he thought was a nice woman. Perry did say later that Dick had killed Nancy and Bonnie, but refused to sign a confession. Dick, meanwhile, always maintained that Perry committed all four murders. 

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