In Cold Blood I
Bill Long 11/25/05
First, Some Oregon Memories
As you speed south along US 97 between Madras and Redmond, OR you almost miss the narrow but deep cavern of the Crooked River Gorge, which you pass over in a trice. Just after passing over the Gorge there is a neatly manicured state park, Peter Skene Ogden Park, to the West. You can pull into the park, leave your car and walk to the edge of the cliff, which plunges straight down about 300-500 feet to the floor of the Gorge and to the gentle meanderings of the Crooked River. When I visited this park in 2002 I noticed a small monument commemorating the work of a local garden club which had done so much to maintain the beauty of the park. Nowhere was there a trace of what I knew was the most famous legacy of the park--the May 10, 1961 slaying of two young children of Gertrude Nunez by Jeannace June Freeman and Nunez, by throwing them off the cliff (probably from the railroad tracks the spanned the cavern) into the Gorge below.
The case shocked the Oregonian conscience in those days, and Jeannace June Freeman became the only women ever to be sentenced to death in Oregon history. Ironies surrounded her case because Freeman was able to get good legal counsel to pursue her federal appeals after she was sentenced to death (Nunez got life imprisonment, which, in those days meant that she was let out of prison within a decade) and actually never was executed.
The Freeman story is a fascinating one in itself for another reason. Her horrible crime was committed in May 1961. Just three months previously, a man from Southern Oregon (LeeRoy MaGahuey) had committed a rather garden-variety first degree murder and was sentenced to death. His death sentence was affirmed by the Oregon Supreme Court and he was executed during the Governorship of Mark Hatfield in 1963 (Hatfield talks about his misgivings in not granting a stay or a pardon in his book Betwen A Rock and a Hard Place). Freeman, however, was able to get counsel to argue her federal habeas corpus appeal (this was the same situation in In Cold Blood, where a few stays of execution were granted the Clutter murderers). Freeman's life was eventually spared because her federal appeal took a few years and, in those years, Oregon abolished the death penalty (1964). Criminal law being what it was at the time, Freeman was eventually let out of prison permanently by a Republican Governor (Vic Atiyeh) in the 1980s when she was still in her mid-40s. She changed her identity but had trouble, as we say in law, conforming her conduct to the requirements of the law, though her conduct never reached the extremes of 1961. Thus, the more heinous murderer was, because of the curious ways of law and life, spared the death penalty and has already lived more than 42 years longer than the hapless MaGahuey.*
[*More about this issue as well as the death penalty in Oregon generally can be found in my book, A Tortured History: The Story of Capital Punishment in Oregon (2001)]
Thinking About The Freeman Killings
As I said above, there was no trace in the state park in 2002 that the horrible crimes of 1961 had taken place on that very spot. Certainly that isn't the kind of memory that a community wants to keep alive, but its memory adds a dimension to the history of the place that ought not to be ignored. As I was looking into the yawning cavern of the Crooked River Gorge with a friend on that day, I said impulsively to her, "I wonder what the interest would be in the following idea. What about if I became a tour guide and put together a tour of the scenes where Oregon's most grisly homicides or crimes took place?" Because I had just published my history of Oregon's death penalty, I already had either been to or knew of many places where bodies were found or crimes were committed. And, my friend, herself a criminal defense (and death penalty) attorney, chimed in that I could show people the "Measure 11 Steps"* as well as a seedy motel on East Burnside in Portland and a tavern or two where other aggravated murders took place.
[*Measure 11 was the ballot measure passed overwhelmingly by the citizens of Oregon in 1995 increasing the penalty for a host of criminal offenses. The case that was used by some as a "poster-case" for increasing sentences had to do with a beating on the steps outside of the Lloyd Center mall in NE Portland. Hence, the "Measure 11 Steps."]
Indeed, as we drove from the park to our conference in Bend, we passed the fashionable suburb of Terrebonne, where a grisly double-homicide took place in 1987. I ultimately decided not to pursue such a course, both because I was employed at the time in the biggest and most prestigious law firm in Oregon slogging away in civil litigation, and we both thought that the good citizens of Oregon might be more offended than charmed by our actions. The idea still awaits the appropriate entrepreneur.
All of these memories were coursing through my mind as I settled in to watch the recently-released Capote, which tells the story not only of the murder of four members of the Clutter family from Holcomb, KS late in 1959, but of the self-absorbed and brilliant Truman Capote, who made his fame on the book In Cold Blood which was published six years after the crimes.
With these things in mind, then, let's turn to some other thoughts and then, maybe, to the movie.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long