Almost 35 years after the Clutter family homestead became a slaughterhouse, Kansas legislators debating the death penalty still speak movingly, almost intimately, of Herb, Bonnie, Nancy and Kenyon, the four victims no one here can forget.
It was the state’s most famous murder case, even without the notoriety brought by “In Cold Blood,” Truman Capote’s “nonfiction novel” that was later made into a somber black-and-white movie.
In making their arguments, both opponents and supporters of capital punishment refer frequently to the Clutter murders.
“It’s a point of remembrance,” said state Rep. Clyde Graeber, chairman of the House committee that considers capital punishment legislation.
“It’s like a Bible,” said Rep. David Heinemann, an attorney who as a teen-ager lived four miles from the Clutters’ home outside Holcomb in southwestern Kansas. “We can look at it through our own lenses and substantiate our own viewpoints.”
This legislative session, Kansas is closer than ever to restoring the death penalty. Each house of the Legislature has passed its own bill, and a joint conference committee is studying the significantly different versions. Reaching a compromise is expected to take a few weeks. Most supporters think a bill will eventually pass.
Gov. Joan Finney personally opposes capital punishment but has promised to let a bill become law without her signature.
Kansas is one of 14 states without a death penalty. Before the U.S. Supreme Court declared all death penalty laws unconstitutional in 1972, Kansas executed prisoners by hanging.
Among those put to death in Kansas before 1972 were Perry Smith and Richard Hickock, the killers of wheat farmer Herb Clutter, his wife, Bonnie, their 16-year-old daughter, Nancy, and 15-year-old son, Kenyon.
Hickock and Smith targeted the family farmhouse but planned only to rob the senior Clutter, who they believed kept substantial amounts of cash in a safe. The Clutters were in fact well-off, but Herb Clutter was locally notorious for writing checks for the smallest purchases and not keeping cash on hand.
The two men entered the Clutter home before dawn Nov. 15, 1959; they bound and gagged all family members, then shot each one in the head.
They left with $40 to $50 in cash and Kenyon’s transistor radio.
Hickock and Smith were convicted and sentenced to hang the following spring. They spent five years on Death Row before entering “The Corner,” the warehouse at the Kansas State Penitentiary in Lansing that housed the state gallows.
“In Cold Blood” was published in 1965, shortly after their executions.
The last inmates hanged in Kansas were not Hickock and Smith but serial killers James Latham and George York, who murdered seven people in five states. They walked up the 13 gallows steps June 22, 1965.
Capote mentioned York and Latham in his book but only because they shared Death Row with Hickock and Smith.
“Latham and York--their case is barely known in Kansas,” Heinemann said. “But everybody knows ‘In Cold Blood.’ ”
Heinemann and other opponents of capital punishment note that Herb Clutter, a strict Methodist, was against the death penalty. Heinemann also believes Hickock and Smith might not have killed Bonnie, Nancy and Kenyon if they didn’t already face “the big swing,” as Hickock called it, for Herb’s murder.
But supporters of capital punishment usually cite the Clutter case as the kind of heinous crime that should be punished by death.
“We’d never had anything like that in our area,” said Clifford Hope Jr., the attorney who handled the Clutter estate.
Kansas has never been comfortable with capital punishment.
The Legislature repealed the state’s first death penalty law in 1907; no inmate had been hanged in the preceding 37 years.
The state returned to the death penalty as punishment for first-degree murder in 1935. Gov. Alf Landon noted at the time that criminals had robbed or tried to rob 87 banks in the previous two years.
“The most potent means of discouraging crime is speedy and certain punishment,” Landon said.
Opponents in 1935 sounded the same arguments still ringing in the Legislature almost 60 years later.
“We are lowering the standard of civilization; we are tarnishing the good name of Kansas, and this bill cannot and will not accomplish its purpose,” state Sen. Joseph McDonald said.
The state waited nine years for its next execution. From 1944 to 1965 it executed 15 people. But since 1976, when the Supreme Court allowed states to start executions again, Kansas has enacted no new death penalty.
Democratic Gov. John Carlin vetoed bills in 1979, 1980, 1981 and 1985. His successor, Republican Mike Hayden, made reinstating capital punishment a priority, but the Senate rejected bills in 1987 and 1989. The House rejected a death penalty proposal in 1992.