Sunday, August 2, 2009

There but for the grace of God, goes Truman Capote

Last night I watched the admirable Truman Capote biopic Infamous, which you might have missed because it was eclipsed by Capote, which came out a year earlier and covered the same period - the time Truman Capote spent "researching" and writing about the murders of a Kansas family and the subsequent trial and execution of their killers.

I read the book that those efforts produced, In Cold Blood, when I was in college and both the writing and the story made an impression on me.

But the story of Truman Capote's closeness to Perry Smith, one of the men awaiting his execution for the murders, that both films tell was much more immediate to me, perhaps given my own personal and professional closeness with people who have been accused or convicted of murder.

One line from Capote rung in my ears when I saw it in the theater, and it has remained with me in the years since. Truman Capote is talking to his friend Harper Lee and explains his connection to Perry:

"It's like Perry and I grew up in the same house, and one day he went out the back door and I went out the front."

In a nutshell, that sense of sameness with my clients, people accused of awful things, is what drew me to become a criminal defense lawyer and it animates my opposition to the death penalty.

Over the years, that sense that we have come from the same place has made it hard for me to - literally - leave death row. Passing through the door from the visiting room, leaving my client behind the mesh screen to wait for a guard, then the sliding door of metal bars, the door at the top of the stairs, the door at the bottom of the stairs, another two sliding doors of metal bars, a door to the bright, neatly manicured grounds, and finally one chain link fence door, and then when that door is fully closed behind me, another, I would think to myself, at each point, Why do I get to leave, go through these doors, go home to New Orleans, to my home, to Nikki, when my clients must stay behind here?

Why do I get to leave through the front door and they need to wait to be taken out the back?


  1. I saw the film "Infamous" about a month ago for the first time, and must say, it moved me deeply. As I only saw bits of the PSH "Capote", I can´t make a fair comparison. Although, my gut feeling tells me the persona of PSH eclipsed the content and issues that really struck me right in the gut while watching "Infamous".

    Indeed - why do we get to leave through the front door? Who are we to say who gets to die or live?

    I am against the death penalty.

    thank you for your very moving words.

  2. I thought that Capote was terrific and that Philip Seymour Hoffman's portrayal of Truman Capote hit the mark and did not overwhelm the material.

    Movies that humanize people who face the death penalty or who have committed crimes are very scarce while the cartoonish depictions of crime and "criminals" that appear constantly on television keep the public misinformed about one of the defining issues of our times, crime and mass incarceration.

    Its just too bad that Capote and Infamous didn't come out ten years apart, so that Infamous could have gotten the attention it deserved. And the people watching it could get another, rare three dimensional dose of crime and punishment.