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Archive for Tuesday, April 5, 2005

An outspoken critic

Former prosecutor says Capote misrepresented him

April 5, 2005

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— Beyond his solid 6-foot-4 frame, Duane West is a looming figure in Garden City.

The 73-year-old has been a visible fixture of the community for nearly a half-century, from his appointment as Finney County attorney in 1956 to serving as the city's mayor in 1978 and 1981. He also was a city commissioner for 12 years, wrote a weekly column for The Garden City Telegram, represents an unknown but talented artist, owns numerous properties in Finney County and is writing a musical about a Garden City founder, C.J. "Buffalo" Jones.

But for all his involvement in the community, West might be best known outside Garden City for a case early in his law career -- his prosecution of Perry Smith and Richard Hickock for the 1959 murders of the Clutter family in Holcomb. West is among a number of key people who made important contributions to the case, only to be grievously underrepresented in Capote's tale.

West was the lead prosecutor, but Capote painted Logan Green, a veteran attorney who helped prosecute Smith and Hickock, as solely responsible for the case.

"I was here. I know what happened. I could give a flying continental about what (Capote) thought," he said. "I'm one who would rather be looking at where I'm going than where I've been."

West is outspoken and fiercely opinionated. Love him or hate him, people rarely forget him.

"I'm an opinionated person, and I don't make any apologies for that," he said. "I think everyone should have an opinion, but it should be an informed opinion."

And West isn't shy about sharing his thoughts about Capote or "In Cold Blood." His biggest complaint is that Capote portrayed him as playing second fiddle to Green. Although Capote wrote, and many believe, that the state brought Green in to assist the younger and less experienced prosecutor, West insists it was he who appointed Green and that he was qualified to handle the case alone.

"I had previously tried a first-degree murder case," West said. "So that was nothing new to me."

In his book, Capote described West as "an ambitious, portly young man of twenty-eight who looks forty and sometimes fifty."

Duane West is an outspoken and integral part of western Kansas. He
has been the Finney County attorney, a Garden City council member
and mayor. He is best known outside the county for his role as the
prosecuting attorney who tried Richard Hickock and Perry Smith for
the murders of four members of the Herb Clutter family.

Duane West is an outspoken and integral part of western Kansas. He has been the Finney County attorney, a Garden City council member and mayor. He is best known outside the county for his role as the prosecuting attorney who tried Richard Hickock and Perry Smith for the murders of four members of the Herb Clutter family.

Newsreels from 1960 show that West was hardly portly, and his spirit today masks his 73 years. In 1960 he looked anything but middle-aged. The newsreels also show a younger version of a man who retains his nimble mind and gift for oration.

Though the court scenes in the book aren't particularly detailed as to who did what, Green is included in the examination of Floyd Wells, the prison inmate who told Hickock of the Clutter farm and later went to authorities to claim a reward. Green shows up again in the state's closing argument to the jury. The only mention of West after the trial's start is a comment he made to Green after his closing argument: "That was masterly, sir."

However, the court transcript supports West's contention that he played a major role.

West gave the opening statement and performed 15 of 28 witness examinations. West said he also gave the first part of the closing statement, which was followed by a statement from one of the defense attorneys.

Green followed with the state's final closing statement. But only Green's statement was included in "In Cold Blood." Beyond being excluded, West has problems with the statement.

"Then Capote -- and this is the biggest beef I have with him -- part of my closing argument he attributed to Mr. Green," West said.





West has theories about why Capote depicted the trial and its cast as he did.

"Mr. Green was one who enjoyed his Kentucky bourbon because he's a Kentuckian. I'm sure they sat out at the country club and schmoozed," West said. "I wasn't one of Capote's drinking buddies, so he kind of ignored me."

West also described a trip he and his wife took to New York City, where Capote and his friend, Harper Lee, who had helped him with interviews in Kansas, treated the couple to a night on the town and a showing of "Hello, Dolly!" on Broadway.

The Wests were not impressed by Capote's behavior in Garden City, and New York was no different, as the writer rushed the Wests out of the theater during an intermission to beat the crowd to a nearby bar. That bar, West said, recently had framed a caricature of Capote that he wanted them to see.

Apparently, the Wests' feelings for Capote were mutual. Included in "Too Brief a Treat," a collection of Capote's correspondence published in October, are two letters to Alvin Dewey, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation agent who led the murder investigation, and his wife, Marie, that mention West.

"I am now half-way through the book, and have never mentioned Duane West once. Of course, I guess I'll have to -- when it comes to the trial," Capote wrote on May 22, 1961. Then on May 23, 1964, Capote wrote, "I spent all of last week in the city -- where [I] was caught by Mr. Duane West. Nelle and I (for our sins) took them to see "Hello, Dolly" -- ugh. I thought he was bad, but the wife is worse! The End! What a pair! Never again."

Duane West's autographed copy of "In Cold Blood" is signed,"For
Duane, With all best wishes. Truman." West keeps the book not for
sentimental value, he says, but in the hopes that it will
appreciate in value.

Duane West's autographed copy of "In Cold Blood" is signed,"For Duane, With all best wishes. Truman." West keeps the book not for sentimental value, he says, but in the hopes that it will appreciate in value.

After the New York trip, West said, Capote asked the attorney to sign a release stating he would never write about the case. West refused, though he says he has never written about the case.

"Now I know why we were treated so royally in New York," he said.

In a letter dated Sept. 26, 1964, that West keeps tucked inside a copy of "In Cold Blood," Capote wrote: "If you do not care to sign the release, that is of course your privelege [sic]. But please do not think, as I am told you do, that this matter of the release was why I tried to be hospitable during your New York visit. My motive was much simpler: I liked and respected you -- and because you wrote to advise me of your impending trip, assumed you have some regard for me."

West says he doesn't dwell on his role in "In Cold Blood." But Capote's methods of reporting and writing bother him because of the potential influence on other journalists.

"A story in the paper can be as inaccurate by what it leaves out as by what it puts in," he said. "That's the problem with Capote's writing."

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