Above photo of the gallows at Kansas State Penitentiary in Lansing, Kansas in 1965 - Kansas Memory
By: Sam Zeff and Matt Hodapp
The murder of the Clutter family on November 15, 1959 in tiny Holcomb, Kansas, which is just outside Garden City in the southwest corner of the state, is certainly the state’s most famous homicide. Author Truman Captoe wrote about the murders in his now famous book “In Cold Blood”. He made millions, and put Holcomb on the map.
While the Clutter murders are the best known in Kansas history, they certainly aren't the most bizarre. The killers were eventually put to death, but the state hasn't always been in favor of the death penalty. In fact, Kansas has struggled with the capital punishment for most of its history.
Perry Smith and Bill Hickock used a shotgun to kill the four Clutters in their farmhouse. The two thought there was a safe full of money but there wasn’t. They got away with a little cash and a radio.
The crime would be shocking today but it’s hard to describe just how shocking it was in 1959.
Smith and Hickock would be captured in Vegas on December 30th, about six weeks after the murders.
Things moved quickly. By March they were convicted and given a mandatory sentence of death.
Five years later, they were hanged in Lansing. First Hickock, who took 20 minutes to die, and then Smith.
In 1935, Governor Alf Landon signs a new death penalty law in response, no doubt, to midwestern gangs like Ma Barker and her boys and Bonnie and Clyde who were robbing banks and killing cops. That’s also part of the reason the state created the Kansas Bureau of Investigation.
Between 1944 and 1954 there were executions, until Governor George Docking was elected. He refused to sign death warrants because he was morally opposed to capital punishment.
His successor, John Anderson, a Johnson County lawyer and former state attorney general, had no such concerns and signed the death warrants for Hickock and Smith, and the last two men to be hanged in Kansas. Three months after Hickock and Smith, were executed George Ronald York and James Douglas Latham were hanged after a seven state crime spree where they killed nine people, one in Wallace, Kansas near the Colorado line.
So, Kansas had the death penalty, it didn’t, it did, it didn’t and its been 52 years since the state has executed anyone. And the death penalty is no less political or controversial right now. So political, in fact, it’s been a prominent feature of the last two elections in Kansas. Here’s a TV ad from 2014 when Governor Sam Brownback was running for re-election. He was in a very tight race with Democrat Paul Davis, so he turned to the Carr brothers from Wichita, convicted of killing five people in a crime spree in 2000:
In 2016 but there was an expensive campaign to oust four state Supreme Court justices because they blocked the Carr’s death sentences on procedural grounds. The U-S Supreme Court would eventually reinstate the death sentences. None of the justices were, in fact, ousted in the retention election.
"I think it's very clear that Kansans have long been very skeptical about the death penalty," said Dr. Micah Kubic, the Executive Director of the ACLU of Kansas. "I think that was also born out in a public opinion poll that we commissioned at the ACLU of Kansas earlier in 2016 that found very clear support for an alternative to the death penalty. When given the option, more people supported the idea of life imprisonment without parol than supported the death penalty."
Fact is even without much change to laws around the country the death penalty is falling out of favor. Ten years ago there were 53 executions in the U.S. Last year just 20. Oddly, or maybe not, all were in the south, expect for one in Missouri. All were by lethal injection. But there are still plenty of people on death row, ten in Kansas and 26 in Missouri.
"I do think however that there will be another effort to repeal the death penalty legislatively (in Kansas). Keep in mind, just a few years ago in frankly a more conservative time they were just one vote away form getting repeal in the sate Senate."
The arguments against capital punishment, Kubic told us, are numerous: because of the lengthy appeals, it took an average of 19 years for those executed in 2016 to have their sentences carried out, it’s more expensive, there’s the moral argument against the state killing someone, and the simple fact that mistakes are not an option and we know mistakes happen.
The argument given by former Governor George Docking, who lost his bid for a third term, many believe, because of his opposition to the death penalty, was much simpler: “I just don’t like killing people.”