Death Penalty on Film: Capote (2005)

This past week, the film Capote (2005) was shown on television -- and while the name suggests that the movie covers the life of famed author Truman Capote, that's not the case.  What the movie focuses upon is Capote's involvement with two men who were executed by the  State of Kansas for the killings of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas back in the late 1950s.

For those - like me - who are interested in how the death penalty is presented to America not only in the media and in our legislation but in our popular culture, I found the movie to be important. 

Not only does it provide an excellent perspective on how the trial and appellate process can cover years and years as the case winds its way through both the state and federal systems, but it reveals so much about the prisoners themselves.  How they spend years and years in small cells, a punishment in and of itself -- and in Perry Smith's case, the movies also gives food for thought about how a small boy could grow up to end his life by a hangman's noose.

And the execution of Perry Smith is shown in Capote.  In the 1960s, Kansas still executed prisoners by hanging.  You see the entirety of the process, and for those who wonder about those last moments - the film strives for accuracy.  There is the harness, there is the hood placed over the prisoner's head (for the benefit of the witnesses many argue, as opposed to the condemned), there is the sound of the latch being thrown and the body falling down, swaying in the open air. 

It's a memorable scene in a memorable film. 

And, as for hanging as a form of capital punishment, we don't see that today.  Today, only two states still allow for hanging and then, only as an option the lethal injection.  (That's Delaware and Washington.) 

Why not?  Hanging someone to kill them is tricky business.  If the state doesn't do its math right, calculating the weight of the individual and comparing it against the length of the drop and the strength of the rope, then the condemned does not die by a swift break of the neck but instead slowly suffocates -- which is said to be a very messy and painful process. 

In Capote (2005), the execution goes smoothly and Truman Capote (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) watches without a word and then walks away.  Afterwards, he completes In Cold Blood -- a telling of the Clutter killings, the investigation and arrest of Perry Smith and Richard Hickock, following the judicial process through their deaths.   

And, of course, In Cold Blood is a must read for those dealing with the issue of capital punishment in this country -- and watching Capote, as this important book is being created, makes you want to pull that important book off the shelf and re-read it.  Which I, for one, am going to do.

"In Cold Blood" Prosecutor's Arguments to Keep and Expand Kansas Death Penalty - The Argument for the State's Authority to Kill, in a Nutshell

You may not remember Duane West from the Truman Capote nonfiction novel, In Cold Blood, or the movies that were made based upon that book (there have been several) ... but Duane West was the district attorney who won his case to have Richard Hickock and Perry Smith put to death for their killing of the Clutter family in the middle of the night in their Holcomb, Kansas, home.

"In Cold Blood" D.A. Responds to Kansas Legislature's Possible Death Penalty Budget Cut

Today, the Kansas Legislature is facing a possible $650,000,000 deficit for their 2010 budget, and they are seriously considering ending capital punishment as solely a budgetary measure. In response, Duane West has taken to the media to voice his vehement objection to this ever happening - and what he is saying for Kansas is what lots of prosecutors and death penalty advocates say a lot of the time (quoting West in the Kansas City Star):

1. Instead of doing away with the death penalty, more crimes should be made eligible for capital punishment.

2. It is the prosecutor's duty to protect and serve - just like every other member of law enforcement. Part of that duty may be to ask for the death penalty in certain cases, for the protection of the public and in service to the law.

3. There are cases where individuals, from the perspective of the prosecution, should be put to death because otherwise they will kill again.

4. Having a death penalty may be the only deterrent in some situations, with West giving the example of a pending Kansas capital punishment case where the state is seeking the death penalty against three former Hutchinson Correctional Facility inmates who are accused of murdering a fellow prison inmate. West's argument is that for prison inmates already serving significant time, capital punishment may be the only deterrent to killing behind bars.

5. Finally, Duane West doesn't buy the argument that capital punishment costs so much more than life imprisonment, because almost every case with a murder conviction does go up on appeal.

Duane West Gives Pro-Capital Punishment Arguments in a Nutshell

Now, Kansas prosecutor Duane West doesn't give us every argument that has been advanced in favor of the death penalty. And, there have been many over the course of history. Capital punishment has been a lawful measure for protecting societies since biblical times. (Check out Exodus 21:12.)

What Duane West does give us is a nutshell of the arguments that death penalty proponents tend to make, and key here: West gives us the clear attitude and perspective that most attorneys who try cases for the State have regarding the death penalty.

From their perspective, the real problem with capital punishment is that there are not enough crimes for which the death penalty can be imposed.

In a nutshell, most prosecutors like the death penalty, they want more of it.

Another lesson from the Casey Anthony case ....

Last week, I wrote about mercy as being a lesson in the Casey Anthony case coverage. Here's another one that I'm pondering. Filicide. It's been around for centuries, it happens with alarming frequency in the United States today, and yet it is still one of those elephants in the room that no one wants to talk about.

Filicide? What's that?

Filicide is Susan Smith and Andrea Yates and Ellen Feinberg and Diane Downs. Filicide - maternal filicide -- is the name given to the particular kind of homicide where mothers kill their children. (Paternal filicide happens too, and more on that, later.)

You know about maternal filicide.

1. Meryl Streep won an Oscar for Sophie's Choice. What was that choice? Filicide.
2. Oprah Winfrey produced and starred in Beloved, based upon the novel by Toni Morrison, where the character Sethe killed her daughter Beloved to keep her from being a slave.
3. Medea (remember, Euripides?) killed her children all because Jason left her.
4. Lois (with Peter) killed son Stevie on an episode of TV's Family Guy.

In this country today, it's much more common that we like to recognize. Every community has had its newborn baby found dead in the dumpster or trash can, left there shortly after birth - and lots of those stories reveal a teen mom who tells authorities she didn't even know she was pregnant. Sure, you've read one of those.

What you need to know about maternal filicide is WHY.

Perhaps we'd all be better served if the reality that filicide exists weren't such a taboo subject. Because then maybe it would be easier for post partum depression sufferers to ask for help. Maybe teen moms might give their newborns to someone rather than dump them.

And, maybe the fixation and for some, obsession, about the Casey Anthony case in the media wouldn't outweigh every other news story in this country for the past year (except for hurricanes, according to Yahoo!).

For more on filicide, look for an upcoming series of posts (Friday's Legal Memo) studying the topic in detail and titled "Filicide is Different."

 
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