Director Richard Brooks' film, In Cold Blood has been characterized as a brutally realistic account of the senseless, random murders of four members of a Kansas family by two young killers (Day, 2002). The 1967 film was based on Truman Capote's nonfiction novel of the same name. On the night of November 15, 1959, two young men named Perry Smith and Dick Hickock invaded the home of Herbert Clutter. Smith and Hickock believed that Clutter had $10,000 in a wall safe in his home. When the young men failed to find the money or a safe, they savagely slaughtered Clutter, his sick wife, his teenage daughter, and his son. They left the scene with less than $10.
At issue is the question of whether the murders committed in the film were first degree murder or felony murder. The critical difference between these two charges is that a charge of first degree murder requires that an element or premeditated intent to take the life of a human being be present when the crime is committed. To prosecute first degree murder, proof is required of either malice aforethought or premeditation. The prosecution must establish the specific intent of the accused to take another's life.
In the film, the primary goal of Smith and Hickock as they entered the Clutter home was not murder, but robbery. During the commission of this crime, the emotions of Smith and Hickock increased and their frustration with the failure of the Clutters to provide them with the money that they expected led them to violence. The definition of felony murder establishes this as a homicide committed during the course of committing another felony such as armed robbery. The felonious act substitutes for premeditation that is ordinarily required in a murder charge.
The question of whether Smith and Hickock committed first degree or felony murder is somewhat difficult. Superficially, the four killings occurred as a consequence of a previous crime -- armed robbery. At ...