The State of Kansas has waded into an unusual legal battle over who owns evidence related to the one of the most notorious and well-chronicled murder cases in American history.
Kansas Attorney General Derek Smith on Monday (October 1) called for the return of the case file records, investigative reports and gruesome crime scene photographs related to the 1959 murders of Holcomb, Kansas farmer Herb Clutter, his wife and two children, the subject of Truman Capote's classic book “In Cold Blood.”
The evidence, including a confession to the execution-styled murders, had long been held by the family of Harold Nye, a former Kansas Bureau of Investigation agent and the case's lead investigator. As the Wall Street Journal reported last month, Nye's wife had initially discarded the materials as trash following his death in 2003, later to be discovered by his son, Ron, who has since tried to sell them at auction.
“It is important for these materials to be returned to the State of Kansas for the protection of the integrity of the records and out of respect for the Clutter family,” Smith said Monday in a statement. “The crime scene and autopsy photographs and the criminal investigation case materials are clearly the property of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation and should not be auctioned off, particularly for personal gain.”
The surviving Clutters say the release of the materials, much of which has never been made public, would greatly distress family members, who had been silent about the case for decades.
"I cannot describe for you the pain and anguish it would cause the family if these items were actually allowed to become public information," Topeka attorney Michael Clutter, one of the relatives, wrote in a letter to the Seattle dealer who had planned to auction the items, according to the Journal.
On Thursday, Shawnee County District Judge Larry Hendricks temporarily blocked the sale until ownership of the items is hashed out. The Attorney General's office filed a petition asking the court to name the State of Kansas as the owner. That's the case, the state argues, because Nye was a state employee when they were created.
There's little legal precedent to guide the court in this case, the Journal reports, because aging police files rarely have much value.