American Rhetoric: Movie Speech

"Compulsion" (1959)


Jonathan Wilk Delivers Closing Argument on Capital Punishment

This crime is the most fiendish, cold-blooded, inexcusable case the world has ever known. That's what Mr. Horn has told this court.

Your Honor, I've been practicing law a good deal longer than I ought to have -- anyhow, now for 45, 46 years. During all that time, I've never tried a case where the State's Attorney did not say it was the most cold-blooded, inexcusable case ever.

Certainly there was no excuse for the killing of little Paulie Kessler. There's also no reason for it -- wasn't for spite or for hate or for money. [The] great misfortune of this case is money. If Your Honor shall doom these boys to die it'll be because [their] parents are rich. I hope I don't need to mention that I'll fight as hard for the poor as for the rich.

If I'd come into this court alone with two ordinary, obscure defendants who'd done what these boys have done, and their hadn't been all this weirdness and notoriety and this sensational publicity -- and I said, "Your Honor, I want to enter a plea of guilty and let you sentence them to life imprisonment," do you suppose the State's Attorneys would have raised their voices in protest? There's never been a case in Chicago when under a plea of guilty a boy under 21 has been sentenced to death. Not one.

Yet for some reason, in the case of these immature boys of diseased minds as plain as day, they say you can only get justice by shedding their last drop of blood. Isn't a lifetime behind prison bars enough for this mad act? And must this great public be regaled with a hanging? For the last three weeks I've heard nothing but the cry of blood in this room. [I've] heard nothing from the offices of the State's Attorney but ugly hatred. For God's sake are we crazy?! If you hang these boys it will mean that in this land of ours a court of law could not help but bow down to public opinion.

In as cruel a speech as he knew how to make, the State's Attorney has told this Court that we're pleading guilty because we're afraid to do anything else. Your Honor, that's true. Of course I'm afraid to submit this case to a jury where the responsibility must be divided by 12. No, Your Honor, if these boys must hang you must do it. [It] must be your own deliberate, cool, premeditated act.

The State's Attorneys laughed at me for talking about children's' fantasies, but what does he know about childhood? What do I know? Is there anyone of us who hasn't been guilty of some kind of delinquency in his youth? How many men are there here today, lawyers and congressmen, judges, and even States' Attorneys, who haven't been guilty of some kind of wild act in youth. And if the consequences didn't amount to much, and we didn't get caught, that was our good luck.

But this was something different. This was the mad act of two sick children who belong in a psychopathic hospital. Do I need to argue it? Is there any man with a decent regard for human life, and the slightest bit of heart, that doesn't understand it? We're told it was a cold-blooded killing because they planned and schemed. Yes, but to hear the officers of the State, who for months have planned and schemed and contrived to take these boys' lives -- talk about scheming. Your Honor, I've become obsessed with this deep feeling of hate and anger. I've been fighting it, battling with it 'til it's has fairly driven me mad.

What about this matter of crime and punishment, anyway? Through the centuries, our laws have been modified, 'til now men look back with horror at the hangings and killings of the past. It's been proven that as the penalties are less barbarous, the crimes are less frequent. Do I need to argue with your Honor that cruelty only breeds cruelty? That every religious leader who's held up as an example has taught us that if there's any way to kill evil, it's not by knowing men. And if there's any way of destroying hatred, and all that goes with it, it's not through evil and hatred and cruelty. It's through charity and love, understanding. This is a Christian community -- so-called. Is there any doubt that these boys would be safe in the hands of the Founder of the Christian religion?

I think anyone who knows me knows how sorry I am for little Paulie Kessler, knows that I'm not saying it simply to talk. Artie and Judd enticed him into a car and when he struggled, they hit him over the head and killed him. They did that. They poured acid on him to destroy his identity and put the naked body in a ditch. And if killing these boys would bring him back to life, I'd say let them go. And I think their parents would say so, too. Neither they nor I would want them released. They must be isolated from society. I'm asking this court to shut them into a prison for life. Any cry for more goes back to the hyena. It roots back to the beasts of the jungle. It's no part of man.

This court is told to give them the same mercy that they gave their victim. Your Honor, if our state is not kinder, more human, more considerate, more intelligent than the mad act of these two sick boys, then I'm sorry that I've lived so long. I know that any mother might be the mother of little Paulie Kessler, who left home and went to school, never came back. But I know that any mother might be the mother of Artie Strauss, Judd Steiner. Maybe that in some ways these parents are more responsible than their children. I guess the truth is that all parents can be criticized. And these might have done better, if they hadn't had so much money -- I do not know.

The State's Attorney has pictured the putting of the poor little dead body in the ditch. But your Honor, I can only think now of taking these two boys, 18 and 19, penning them in a cell, and checking off the days and hours and minutes, until they're wakened in the grey of the morning and led to the scaffold, their feet tied, black caps drawn over their heads, stood on a trap, the hangman pressing the spring. I can see them fall through a space. I can see them stopped by the rope around their necks.

It would be done, of course, in the name of justice.

Justice, who knows what it is? Do I know? Does your Honor know? Can your Honor tell me what I deserve? Can your Honor appraise yourself and say what you deserve? Do you think you can cure the hatreds and maladjustments of the world by hanging them? Mr. Horn says that if we hang Artie and Judd, there'll be no more killing. The world has been one long slaughterhouse from the beginning until today, and the killing goes on and on and on. Why not read something? Why not think, instead of blindly shouting for death. Kill them. Because everybody's talking about the case? Because their parents have money? Kill them. Will that stop other sick boys from killing? No.

It's taken the world a long, long time to get to even where it is today. Your Honor, if you hang these boys, you turn back to the past. I'm pleading for the future -- not merely for these boys, but for all boys, for all the young. I'm pleading, not for these two lives, but for life itself, for a time when we can learn to overcome hatred with love, when we can learn that all life is worth saving, and that mercy is the highest attribute of men.

Yes, I'm pleading for the future.

In this court of law, I'm pleading for love.

Judge: Court -- Court stands in recess until 10 'o'clock tomorrow morning.

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