Perry is the first man to ever be held in the “ladies’ cell,” which is built into the kitchen of the Sheriff’s Residence (an apartment in the courthouse). Josephine Meier, the undersheriff’s wife, offers him some food when he arrives, but Perry is silent and doesn’t have an appetite. He then expresses his fear than an angry mob will tear him apart, similar to a scene in a Biblical movie he once saw. Josephine finds Perry to be a sympathetic character. She tells her husband as much, and her husband scoffs. Her husband says she should have been at the Clutters’ farm when the bodies were discovered – then she could have seen how “gentle” Perry was.
Although he was placed there by chance, it seems fitting that Perry, who is often referred to as womanly, is being held in the women’s cell. This further underscores his “abnormal” masculinity. Perry’s fear of a “Biblical” execution seems to echo his sense of the having crossed some sort of divine law that would cause others to view him as so evil he should be viciously killed. Again, in spite of being a criminal and a cold-hearted killer, Perry still manages to inspire sympathy in those around him.
Perry proves to be a rather charming detainee: he acquires a pet squirrel; he takes pride in making his bed; he sketches flowers and portraits of Jesus; and he writes in his diary. He has Alvin change his sworn statement – he wants to claim full responsibility for the murders, so Dick’s family won’t suffer. Meanwhile, the county attorney swears that he will pursue the death penalty against Dick and Perry. Perry’s resentment toward Dick wears off, and he misses him.
In spite of being capable of great evil, Perry is also capable of acts of touching domesticity, tenderness, and religiosity. He’s sensitive to Dick’s family and doesn’t want them to suffer (similar to the way he didn’t want the Clutters to suffer).
Perry receives a letter from an old Army buddy named Don Cullivan. He doesn’t have a clear memory of Don, but he’s lonely, and is therefore grateful to hear from someone. Don writes to him largely due to his Christian faith. “[B]ecause God made you as well as me and He loves you just as He loves me,” Don writes. Perry writes back, with enthusiasm.
Religious people seem to be unavoidably drawn to Perry throughout the book, and Don is no exception. Perry is touched by Don’s offer of friendship, and is also desperate to feel like he isn’t an outcast.
Meanwhile, Dick schemes away in his cell in the main jail. He has plans to make a jailbreak and head for Colorado, where he dreams of squatting in summer cabins (something he’d done soon after he’d graduated high school). He fashions a shiv, with the hope of killing the undersheriff.
Dick has come up with yet another unattainable and unsustainable fantasy. This is yet another attempt—even in jail—to realize some version of the American Dream, and he is willing to do anything to achieve it.
Perry watches the two gray cats from his window and realizes that his life has been a lot like theirs. He learns secondhand that the sheriff discovered Dick’s shiv, which leads him to reflect on his own plans of escape. He has a dream of escaping with the help of two young men who he glimpsed from his window – he imagined that they signaled to him, and in response he drew a map and a letter detailing how they could help him escape. His plans dissolve when the two men never show up again. He fantasizes of suicide – in one such dream he imagines cutting his wrists and ankles with a broken light bulb. “The walls of the cell fell away, the sky came down, I saw the big yellow bird.”
In spite of his moments of self-awareness (for instance, realizing that his life is similar to that of the two gray cats), Perry is incapable of realizing that he dwells in a world of fantasy. His dream that the two young men in the square will help him is downright delusional, and points to mental illness. His suicidal fantasies also indicate that he’s descending into mental illness. He longs for salvation, perhaps in the form of divine intervention.
It is decided that the trial will be held in Garden City, given that sentiment toward Dick and Perry is essentially uniform throughout the state. Additionally, many of Garden City’s Christian leaders are opposed to the death penalty. Several medical doctors from Garden City are brought in to verify that Dick and Perry are sane; they find both men fit for trial. In spite of this, the defense brings in its own psychiatrist, Dr. Jones, to evaluate the men.
The Garden City officials’ hope that Perry and Dick will receive a fair trial is perhaps another unrealized dream (one rooted in the American Dream). Even though Perry is clearly descending further into mental illness, he is considered mentally “normal” by the standards of the court.
On March 31st, the Clutters’ remaining belongings are sold in an auction that draws 5,000 people. Paul Helm comments that the auction is like “a second funeral.” Babe is sold to a Mennonite farmer – a fact that draws a deep emotional reaction from Susan.
The liquidation of the Clutters’ possessions can be seen as a liquidation of their dreams, and an indication of the ephemerality of all dreams, achieved or not. This is why it seems like another funeral – it’s the death of River Valley Farm. Susan's unhappiness that Babe is sold to a Mennonite points again to the tension between religions.
A jury is selected, and during that time Dick and Perry write autobiographical statements for Dr. Jones, the defense’s psychiatrist. Perry’s statement details a shattered family life of poverty, alcoholism, and periodic homelessness. He details physical and sexual abuse during his time in the Catholic orphanage, and his violent stint in the Army (during which time he was court-martialed for killing a Japanese policeman and demolishing a Japanese café). Dick’s narrative is vastly different. He writes that he was a sports star in high school but couldn’t afford to go to college, in spite of winning scholarships. In his narrative, he confesses to his pedophilic tendencies, and admits that his interest in going to the Clutters “was not to rob them but to rape [Nancy].” He also writes of a “sickness” due to his car accident – fainting spells and nosebleeds.
In reviewing the biographical details of Dick and Perry’s lives, the question of nature vs. nurture is brought up: are they naturally prone to evil acts? Or was evil nurtured in them? In Perry’s case, it seems like his traumatic past wounded him to an extent that he became capable of evil. In Dick’s case, given his “normal” upbringing, it seems like there’s no natural cause for his criminal behavior and murderous tendencies. The statements also underscore how both Dick and Perry suffer from physical and mental “abnormalities.”
The trial begins. Mr. Hickok is convinced that the trial is “prejudiced” against his son, especially when photos of the crime scene are passed among the jurors. Floyd testifies and establishes that the murders were premeditated. Before the court recesses for the weekend, Alvin testifies that Dick had planned on raping Nancy and that Perry had prevented him from doing so. He also reveals that Perry had willingly taken the blame for the murders, in order to spare Dick’s family. Mrs. Hickok breaks down when she hears this, and later tells a reporter she can’t understand where she went wrong with Dick, and that she feels sympathy both for her own child and for Perry.
It’s not clear whether Perry really wants to help Dick’s family or not – on the one hand, he takes the fall for the murders, but on the other hand he let it slip that Dick wanted to rape Nancy (something that he must have known Alvin would share during the trial). Mrs. Hickok now has sympathy for “evil” Perry, and doesn’t know how her “normal” boy became a criminal.
Spurred by religious feeling, Don Cullivan visits Perry in prison. Perry has a special meal prepared for his guest, and he makes sure the table looks beautiful. After the meal, Perry admits that he doesn’t know why he killed the Clutters. He speculates that he was taking out his own private anger on the Clutters. When asked if he felt remorseful, Perry replies, “Am I sorry? If that’s what you mean – I’m not.” Don presses Perry, asking him how he could be so “devoid of conscience.” Perry shrugs it off, arguing that soldiers commit murder, as do hangmen. “It’s easy to kill,” he says. “A lot easier than passing a bad check.” He adds that if he’d known the Clutters, he’d probably feel some remorse. Before Don leaves, Perry remarks that he should kill himself right then and there. “I don’t know why I should die among strangers,” he says.
Perry continues to act in what would be considered a traditionally womanly manner: he makes sure there’s a special meal; he pays attention to the table setting; etc. Don, a devout Christian, hopes to convert or at least sway Perry’s convictions, but Perry is both strongly anti-religion (despite his very strong fears about divine justice) and, as it turns out, anti-social. The question of whether Perry’s evil simply because he feels no remorse isn’t answered definitively. In spite of his seeming apathy, Perry still seems to be in the grip of mental illness, and harbors suicidal fantasies.
The trial resumes. Dr. Jones is brought forth to testify, but isn’t allowed to speak, other than to state whether he has an opinion whether Dick and Perry knew right from wrong at the time of the murders. Dr. Jones states that he does, in fact, have an opinion of whether Dick knew right from wrong. In his evaluation of Dick, Dr. Jones found that Dick has a “severe character disorder” and that he possibly suffers from “organic brain damage.” When asked about Perry, Dr. Jones states that he has no opinion of whether Perry can tell right from wrong. Dr. Jones believes Perry “attaches little real value to human life” and that he is probably a paranoid schizophrenic. Further psychiatric consultation separate from the trial finds that Perry may be a rare type of killer, one capable of “murder without motive.”
Can a person be naturally evil? Does a history of trauma excuse criminal behavior? These questions are at stake in the diagnosis and analysis of Perry and Dick’s respective mental states. Even though Dick seemed to know right from wrong, Dr. Jones explains that there may be some psychological explanation for his anti-social behavior. And even though Perry clearly suffers from a rare psychological disorder, Dr. Jones isn’t eager to clear him of all wrongdoing.
The trial’s final session is held. The defense argues that the death penalty goes against Christian values, citing that, “It is a relic of human barbarism.” The prosecution’s attorney, the theatrical and highly experienced Logan Green, sends chills through the courtroom with his closing arguments. He argues that the Bible is in favor of the death penalty, and that Dick and Perry are so dangerous that anything short of the death penalty would effectively give them the chance to murder again. After the trial, several reporters have mixed feelings – some feel sorry for Perry (arguing that the death penalty is “pretty cold-blooded”). The jury finds Perry and Dick guilty of first-degree murder, and the two are sentenced to death.
The defense argues that the Christian thing to do is to give Dick and Perry a life sentence. The prosecution, on the other hand, argues that a strict interpretation of the Bible calls for their execution. Christianity itself here seems to be a kind of dream – an ideal that characters appeal to and strive for with the best of intentions, only to be unable to actually achieve that dream in the end. Onlookers at the trial are still unsure whether justice was served, as many sympathize with Perry.
After the trial, Mrs. Meier overhears Perry weeping in his cell. She holds his hand, and he says, “I’m embraced by shame.”
Perry finally feels remorse – but it seems to be an “abnormal” remorse, one driven by self-pity.
The next day, Dick and Perry are sent back to Kansas State Penitentiary in Lansing, where they’re put on Death Row. Death Row is housed in a “dark, two-storied building shaped like a coffin.” The windows of Death Row look out on The Corner, a shed that houses the gallows. Dick and Perry join the ranks of a handful of criminals awaiting death: a black man who kidnapped, raped, and tortured a woman; “an effeminate youth” who killed an old woman and then, in a lover’s quarrel, another prison inmate; and Lowell Lee Andrews (an obese, intellectual teenager who, driven by dreams of gangsterdom, killed his immediate family in cold blood).
The various inmates on Death Row (Andrews in particular) complicate and offer further insight into questions of what is “normal” mental health and who can really be considered evil. Andrews, spurred by dreams of gangsterdom, slaughtered his family. Still, given that he seems mentally ill (or perhaps high-functioning autistic), it’s not clear whether he can be considered truly evil.
Dick and Perry survive their first execution date, given that their case is in appeals court. Perry and Dick occupy adjacent cells but they rarely speak to one another, largely because Perry is afraid of having his grammar corrected by the overly intellectual Andrews. Perry goes on a hunger strike, and is sent to the hospital after a week in order to be force-fed. He experiences auditory hallucinations; he hears a voice that asks him, “Where is Jesus?” (“And once he woke up shouting, ‘The bird is Jesus!’”) He has a recurrent dream of performing in a nightclub to an audience of deceased Death Row inmates. One day, he receives a postcard – it’s from his father, addressed to the warden. The anger this card inspires in him gives him the will to remain alive. He begins to eat again. When he returns to his cell, “Dick laugh[s] and sa[ys], ‘Welcome home, honey.’”
Perry’s mental illness reaches a fever pitch during his hunger strike, and his fantastical visions take on a particularly religious tone, especially when he says outright that “the bird is Jesus.” Ironically, even though his anger towards his father may have spurred him to kill, it seems to have now given him the strength to live. Dick’s greeting to Perry once he returns from the hospital sounds eerily like a wife welcoming her husband home from work (or vice-versa).
Two years go by. Dick takes to studying law books, with the aim of reversing his conviction. (“I’m no goddamn killer,” he proclaims.) Dick’s hair is falling out, and he’s “frantic” that he’s on his way to becoming “an ugly old baldhead.” Two new inmates join them: George Ronald York and James Douglas Latham - two handsome young men who murdered a number of women in cold blood. (When asked on television why they committed their crimes, York replied, “We hate the world.”)
Dick seems to have convinced himself that he’s not guilty, similar to the way he’s convinced himself his whole life that he’s “a normal.” This is ultimately another failed dream. His appearance becomes more “abnormal” as he loses his hair. The two new inmates seem to be clearly “evil” – even though they appear “normal.”
One of Dick’s letters gains some traction with the Chairman of the Legal Aid Committee of the Kansas State Bar Association. A full-scale hearing is conducted in Garden City, in which “the whole cast” is reassembled (minus Dick and Perry). After much deliberation, it’s decided that Perry and Dick had “received a constitutionally fair trial,” and a new date is set for their execution.
Dick’s dream of being found innocent is shattered after the verdict in his case is upheld once again.
In the meantime, Andrews is executed. Dick and Perry watch the proceedings from their cells in Death Row – they can see everything but the gallows, which is just out of view. Speaking to a journalist (presumably Truman Capote himself), Dick describes Andrews as “a funny kid” who “had no respect for human life.” When Dick says goodbye to Andrews, saying that he’ll see him soon (implying that he’ll see him in Hell), Andrews laughs and says he only believes in “dust unto dust.” Dick fondly reflects on Andy’s dreams of becoming a hired hit man.
Dick seems fond of Andrews, in spite of the fact that Andrews clearly had evil tendencies. Dick’s religious beliefs, rarely touched on in the book, are brought up in his final conversation with Andrews – like Perry, Dick seems to believe in an afterlife. Andrews’ shattered dreams of becoming a hit man parallel Dick’s own failed dreams of criminal glory.
Dick then goes on to assert his innocence – he’s convinced, at this point, that he never killed anyone. He claims that Perry wants Dick to die – “He’s plain determined that if he goes I go.” Dick reflects on capital punishment, and decides he’s not against it. “Revenge is all it is,” he says. “But what’s wrong with revenge?”
Three years pass, and Dick and Perry manage to slip by three more execution dates. Finally, their final appeal fails, and their final execution date is set: April 14th, 1965. Alvin shows up for the execution and he finds the chamber devoid of dignity, a “bleakly lighted cavern cluttered with lumber and other debris.” In his last words, Dick says that he holds “no hard feelings.” He shakes hands with the KBI Agents (Church, Duntz, and Nye are also present). He hangs and dies.
The execution chamber, similar to Perry and Dick, doesn’t look “normal” – it’s oddly shabby. Dick is strangely free of bitterness when he’s hanged. Is it because he believes himself to be innocent? Does he forgive the KBI agents? Or is it just another lie? It’s unclear.
Perry is then led to the gallows. His last words are solemn: “I think,” he says, “it’s a helluva thing to take a life in this manner. I don’t believe in capital punishment, morally or legally. Maybe I had something to contribute…” He falters, and adds: “It would be meaningless to apologize for what I did. Even inappropriate. But I do. I apologize.” Alvin is deeply moved by Perry’s execution. To him, Perry possesses “the aura of an exiled animal, a creature walking wounded.” He recalls his first impressions of Perry, how he’d been fascinated by his tiny legs and feet. He now sees those same “childish feet, tilted, dangling.”
Perry’s death is similar to his first interrogation. He seems flustered, unpolished, confused – very much like “an exiled animal.” His appearance is still strange, and Alvin can’t help but notice his “childish feet.” Perry’s assertion that he could have “had something to contribute” touches on his crushed dreams of stardom and wealth. His bewilderment gives him an air of innocence.
Alvin realizes that the execution has not given him a sense of closure – rather, he gained closure a year earlier, during a visit to the Valley View Cemetery in Garden City. While at the cemetery, Alvin walked past the graves of Bonnie Jean Ashida (Mrs. Ashida’s elder daughter, killed in a car accident) and Judge Tate (who presided over the Dick and Perry’s trial and later died of pneumonia). He reaches the Clutters’ grave plot and finds Susan standing there. She’s in college now, and has grown into a “willowy girl…with long, elegant legs.” She chats with him briefly, revealing that Bobby has recently gotten married. Susan then runs off, presumably on an errand. Alvin reflected that Nancy may have grown into “just such a young woman,” “a pretty girl in a hurry, her smooth hair swinging, shining.”
Alvin finds closure not in the death of Perry and Dick, but in the continued life of those who were connected to the Clutter family: Bobby and Susan in particular. Susan’s “normal” appearance, apparent mental health, and her so-far successful pursuit of the American Dream remind Alvin of Nancy, and give him hope for the future. Susan’s return seems almost like the return of innocence to Holcomb, and in a way that brings up the other side of dreams. So much of the book focused on the way that failed dreams can drive resentment and violence. But dreams can also allow and motivate people to move on, to forget, to keep living.