Truman Capote (In Cold Blood) Talks Death Penalty with William F. Buckley (1968)


Tru­man Capote did­n’t study to become expert in cap­i­tal crime and its pun­ish­ment,” says William F. Buck­ley on the Fir­ing Line broad­cast of Sep­tem­ber 3, 1968, “but his five and one half year engage­ment of the slaugh­ter of the Clut­ter fam­i­ly, which went into the writ­ing of In Cold Blood, left him with high­ly set­tled impres­sions in the mat­ter.” You can hear Buck­ley elic­it and Capote con­cise­ly lay out the posi­tion to which these impres­sions brought him in the clip above. Though remem­bered for his own con­ser­v­a­tive views, Buck­ley seemed ever eager to invite onto his show, fre­quent­ly and with­out hes­i­ta­tion, pub­lic fig­ures who strong­ly dis­agreed with him. This sense of con­tro­ver­sy gen­er­at­ed a stream of clas­si­cal­ly com­pelling tele­vi­su­al moments over Fir­ing Line’s 33-year run, but for my mon­ey, all the direct con­flicts have less to offer than the times a guest — or even the host — broke from stan­dard ide­o­log­i­cal posi­tions, as Capote does here.

Buck­ley opens by ask­ing whether “sys­tem­at­ic exe­cu­tion of killers over the pre­ced­ing gen­er­a­tion might have stayed the hand of the mur­der­ers of the Cut­ter fam­i­ly.” Capote replies that “cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment — which I’m opposed to, but for quite dif­fer­ent rea­sons than are usu­al­ly advanced — would in itself be a sin­gu­lar­ly effec­tive deter­rent, if it were, in fact, sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly applied. But because pub­lic sen­ti­ment is very much opposed to it and the courts have allowed this end­less pol­i­cy of appeal — to such a degree that a per­son can be eleven, twelve, thir­teen, four­teen years under a sen­tence of cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment — it becomes, in effect, an extreme, unusu­al, and cru­el pun­ish­ment. If peo­ple real­ly were sen­tenced to be exe­cut­ed and were with­in a rea­son­able peri­od of time, the pro­fes­sion­al mur­der­er knew the absolute, pos­i­tive end of their actions would be their own death, I think it would cer­tain­ly give them sec­ond thoughts.” This per­haps lends itself poor­ly to a sound bite, but Fir­ing Line at its best nev­er dealt in those.

Relat­ed con­tent:

William F. Buck­ley Meets (Pos­si­bly Drunk) Jack Ker­ouac, Tries to Make Sense of Hip­pies, 1968

James Bald­win Bests William F. Buck­ley in 1965 Debate at Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty

Allen Gins­berg Reads a Poem He Wrote on LSD to William F. Buck­ley

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.


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