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The History Of Capital Punishment English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1412 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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In Cold Blood is considered to be 'the original nonfiction novel' in the sense that Truman Capote claims to keep himself and his views out of the book while still developing a storyline and characters. For the most part, Capote does a respectable job of doing this, having interviewed countless witnesses and put in years of research. However, by electing to use the Clutter case to create an entire novel rather than merely writing a journalistic article, he presents himself with the danger of allowing his own views and beliefs to seep through his writing in between the lines of his novel. As a human being, and more importantly, a writer, it is almost certain that these details will be exposed in some capacity, especially given his immense passion for the societal questions that the case raises. One such exam­ple is the age-old controversy of capital punishment. Despite Capote's seemingly distant approach to writing In Cold Blood, his strong opposition to the death penalty is inevitably revealed through his inclusion of detail and use of language.

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Capote's disapproval of capital punishment is prominently evident in his decision to raise the issue of whether or not Dick and Perry received a fair trial. One of the main arguments against the death penalty is the fact that one's fate can become dependent of the quality of their trial rather than the actual severity of the crime. Most of those who oppose capital punishment believe that human life is far too valuable to have its fate left to a jury a trial with several variable factors and a jury of average citizens. This is exactly what can be inferred from Capote's focus on the fairness of the trial. Normally, defendants, such as Dick and Perry, do not have the financial means to afford an actual lawyer. They are instead provided a public defender, who cares very little about the case, and typically barely makes an effort to defend their client. In the case of the Clutter trial, Dick's lawyer "accepted the task with resigned grace: 'Someone has to do it. And I'll do my best. Though I doubt that'll make me popular around here'" (257). Besides demonstrating a complete lack of interest towards the case, the lawyer also mentions that he is afraid of what others will think of him if he is successful in defending Dick. There is little doubt that this fear significantly hampered his performance, strengthening the belief that Capote used this detail to show disagreement with the death penalty. Furthermore, Arthur Fleming, Perry's lawyer also adds that "'I do not desire to serve'…'[b]ut if the court sees fit to appoint me, then of course I have no choice'" (257). These attributes not only set a negative tone for the already grim trial, but will undoubtedly give Perry a considerable disadvantage in court as well, once again strengthening the case for Capote's bias. This disadvantage comes to fruition when Fleming decided against moving the trial away from the city of Garden City, where they would be able to escape the almost certain selection of a tainted jury. This, combined with the judge refusing to move the date of the trial further away from the date of the Clutter auction makes a strong case for an unfair trial. By including these several details, Capote hopes, knowingly or not, that the reader will too realize that the prejudicial trial is to blame for two undeserving men's deaths.

Dick and Perry are also forced to face unjust adversity when the jury is chosen. Four of the prospective jurors "told the court that they had been personally…acquainted with Mr. Clutter; but upon further questioning, each said he did not feel this circumstance would hinder his ability to reach an impartial verdict" (273). Despite the four men's claims, it is obvious that it would be near impossible decide the case without bias. Another man was selected for the jury despite explaining, "'Ordinarily, I'm against [the death penalty]. But in this case, no'" (273). This statement all but confirms that he has already reached a verdict before the trial had even begun. Furthermore, the judge permitted gruesome photographs of the Clutters to be shown to the jury, which unsurprisingly shocked the courtroom. It is clear that Capote went to great lengths to demonstrate several instances in which Dick and Perry received an unfair trial. The presence of this mountain of evidence in Capote's writing further implies that the partial trial more of a reason for the deaths of Dick and Perry than the murder itself, once again showing that Capote's beliefs perfectly align with those known to be against the death penalty.

Capote's inclusion of several passages discussing the mental capacity of the two criminals further proves that he does indeed oppose capital punishment. He attempts to show the reader several times something that the judge did not give the defense the chance to prove, suggesting that there is a strong possibility that the criminals may have been insane, and therefore wrongly received the death penalty. Capote is notes that both Dick and Perry were injured in automobile accidents three times throughout the book, implying that there may be have been mental damage done and a possible excuse for their actions. Perry, when confessing, admits that "…I didn't realize what I'd done till I heard the sound" (244). This certainly raises questions regarding his mental state. Capote pushes this idea even further by discussing the M'Naughten and Durham Rule. As the trial is held in Kansas, which upholds the McNaughton rule, the judge only allows for his one-word answer, 'yes.' When he attempts to elaborate, the prosecution objects, citing the fact that the M'Naughten rule did not allow for anything more than a simple 'yes' or 'no.' However, in an effort to utilize the event as a chance for him to make a political statement and sway the reader, Capote includes what the court would refuse to allow: the full psychiatric evaluation. While the evaluation would be expected to be much more help to Perry, it even sheds some light on the possible mental instabilities of Dick, who was previously thought to be completely sane, just evil. The doctor notes the possibility of organic brain damage from the automobile accident, and recommends he be further examined, as this could have severely influenced his actions at the time of the murder.

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It is the evaluation of Perry, however, that Capote must surely have believed was a powerful tool for provoking sympathy and supporting his case regarding the opposition of the death penalty. Once again, notwithstanding the fact that the court only allowed for a one-word response, Capote includes the would-have-been testimony in full. The report makes several mentions of Perry's brutal childhood, discussing the implications it could have had on his adult life and the crime. The doctor indicates several key attributes of Perry that could have easily led to him committing the crime, such as the fact that "'…his ability to separate the real situation from his own mental projections is very poor'" (297). Among several other characteristics, the report also makes known Perry's "'…ever-present, poorly controlled rage-easily triggered by any feeling of being tricked, slighted, or labeled inferior by others'" (297). This evidence considerably strengthens Capotes belief that a poor trial can be responsible for one's death by capital punishment rather than the crime itself. The trial was never a question of whether Dick and Perry committed the crime, but rather whether they should be put to death, or whether they were mentally insane. Sadly, the latter could never be determined due to the use of the M'Naughten rule, and the judge's refusal to hear the full psychiatric evaluation of the criminals. While In Cold Blood can simply be read as a no more than a nonfiction murder novel, it is clear that Truman Capote wanted it to be so much more. Rather than just tell the story, he actually uses the book as a widespread medium for making a political statement, subtly arguing that capital punishment is never justified. As Capote also wanted his book to be an entertaining, while somewhat disturbing, read, he is sure to never blatantly express his own views. On the contrary, it is Capote's use of language and reasons behind it that allow the scrupulous reader to deduce his stance regarding capital punishment.


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