Few trial transcripts are as likely to bring tears to the eyes as that of the 1924 murder trial of Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold. Decades after Clarence Darrow delivered his twelve-hour long plea to save his young clients' lives, his moving summation stands as the most eloquent attack on the death penalty ever delivered in an American courtroom. Mixing poetry and prose, science and emotion, a world-weary cynicism and a dedication to his cause, hatred of bloodlust and love of man, Darrow takes his audience on an oratorical ride that would be unimaginable in a criminal trial today. Even without Darrow in his prime, the Leopold and Loeb trial has the elements to justify its billing as the first "trial of the century." It is not surprising that the public responded to a trial that involved the kidnapping and murder of a fourteen-year old boy from one of Chicago's most prominent families, a bizarre relationship between two promising scholars-turned-murderers, what the prosecutor called an "act of Providence" leading to the apprehension of the teenage defendants, dueling psychiatrists, and an experienced and sharp-tongued state's attorney bent on hanging the confessed killers in spite of their relative youth.
The crime that captured national attention in 1924 began as a fantasy in the mind of eighteen-year old Richard Loeb, the handsome and privileged son of a retired Sears Roebuck vice president. Loeb was obsessed with crime. Despite his high intelligence and standing as the youngest graduate ever of the University of Michigan, Loeb read mostly detective stories. He read about crime, he planned crimes, and he committed crimes, although none until 1924 were crimes involving physical harm to a person. ( Darrow and Leopold later saw Loeb's fascination with crime as form of rebellion against the well-meaning, but strict and controlling, governess who raised him.) For Loeb, crime became a sort of game; he wanted to commit the perfect crime just to prove that it could be done.
Loeb's nineteen-year old partner in crime, Nathan Leopold, was interested in ornithology, philosophy, and especially, Richard Loeb. Like Loeb, Leopold was a child of wealth and opportunity, the son of a millionaire box manufacturer. At the time of their crime, the brilliant Leopold was a law student at the University of Chicago and was planning to begin studies at Harvard Law School after a family trip to Europe in the summer. Leopold already had achieved recognition as the nation's leading authority on the Kirtland warbler, an endangered songbird, and frequently lectured on the subjects of his ornithological passion. As a student of philosophy, Leopold was attracted to Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche's influence on early twentieth century academics was powerful, and the merits of ideas contained in books like his Beyond Good and Evil were fiercely debated in centers of learning like the University of Chicago. Leopold agreed with Nietzsche's criticism of moral codes, and believed that legal obligations did not apply to those who approached "the superman." Leopold's idea of the superman was his friend and lover, Richard Loeb.
Loeb and Leopold had an intense and stormy relationship. At one time Leopold contemplated killing Loeb over a perceived breach of confidentiality. This relationship, described by Darrow as "weird and almost impossible," led the two boys to do together what they almost certainly would never have done apart: commit murder. Motives are often unclear, and they are in this trial. Neither the defense's theory that the murder was an effort by both to deepen their relationship nor the prosecution's theory that money to pay off gambling debts and a desire by Loeb to "have something" on Leopold in order to counter Leopold's unwanted demands for sex, are likely accurate. What is clearest about the motives is that Leopold's attraction to Loeb wa
s his primary reason for participating in the crime. Leopold later wrote that "Loeb's friendship was necessary to me-- terribly necessary" and that his motive, "to the extent that I had one, was to please Dick." For Loeb, the crime was more an escape from the ordinary; an interesting intellectual exercise.
Murder was a necessary element in their plan to commit the perfect crime. The two teenagers spent hours discussing and refining a plan that included kidnapping the child of a wealthy parents, demanding a ransom, and collecting the ransom after it was thrown off a moving train as it passed a designated point. Neither Loeb nor Leopold relished the idea of murdering their kidnap victim, but they thought it critical to minimizing their likelihood of being identified as the kidnappers. Their victim turned out to be an acquaintance of the two boys, Bobby Franks.
Franks was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. On May 21, 1924 at about five o'clock in the afternoon, Bobby Franks was walking home from school when a gray Winton automobile pulled up near him. Loeb asked Franks to come over to the car, asked him to get in the car to discuss a tennis racquet, then killed him with a chisel as the two drove off. (Though most evidence points to Loeb as the actual killer, there is some dispute about this, as there is over the time of the killing. Some have suggested that Franks was sexually molested, then killed later.) Leopold and Loeb drove their rented car to a marshland near the Indiana line, where they stripped Franks naked, poured hydrochloric acid over his body to make identification more difficult, then stuffed the body in a concrete drainage culvert. The boys returned to the Loeb home where they burned Franks' clothing in a basement fire. That evening Mrs. Franks received a phone call from Leopold, who identified himself as "George Johnson." Leopold told Franks that her boy had been kidnapped, but was unharmed, and that she should expect a ransom note soon. The next morning the Franks family received a special delivery letter asking that they immediately secure $10,000 in old, unmarked bills and telling them to expect further instructions that afternoon. Leopold ("George Johnson") called Jacob Franks, Bobby's father, at three o'clock to tell him a taxi cab was about to arrive at his home and that he should take it to a specified drugstore in South Chicago. Just as Franks headed out to the Yellow Cab, a second call came, this one from the police, spoiling hope that the perfect crime would be executed. The body of Bobby Franks had been identified; a laborer happened to see a flash of what turned out to be a foot through the the shrubbery covering the open culvert where the body had been placed.
There would have been no arrests and no trial but for what the prosecutor called "the hand of God at work in this case." A pair of horn-rimmed glasses were discovered with the body of Bobby Franks. The glasses, belonging to Nathan Leopold, had slipped out of his pocket as he struggled to hide the body. They had an unusual hinge and could be traced to a single Chicago optometrist, who had written only three such prescriptions, including the one to Leopold. When questioned about the glasses, Leopold said that he must have lost them on one of his frequent birding expeditions. He was asked by an investigator to demonstrate how the glasses might have fallen out of his pockets, but failed after a series of purposeful trips to dislodge the glasses from his coat. Questioning became more intense. Leopold said that he spent the twenty-first of May picking up girls in his car with Loeb and driving out to Lincoln Park. Loeb, when questioned separately, confirmed Leopold's alibi. Prosecutor's were on the verge of releasing the two suspects when two additional pieces of evidence surfaced. First, typewritten notes taken from a member of Leopold's law school study group we
re found to match the type from the ransom note, despite the fact that an earlier search of the Leopold home turned up a typewriter with unmatching type. Then came a statement from the Leopold family chauffeur, made in the hope of establishing Nathan's innocence, that spelled his doom. He said he was certain that the Leopold car had not left the garage on the day of the murder.
Loeb confessed first, then Leopold. Their confessions differed only on the point of who did the actual killing, with each pointing the finger at the other. Leopold later pleaded with Loeb to admit to killing Franks but, according to Leopold, Loeb said, "Mompsie feels less terrible than she might, thinking you did it and I'm not going to take that shred of comfort away from her."
The Loeb and Leopold families hired Clarence Darrow and Benjamin Bachrach to represent the two boys. Nathan said his first impression of Darrow was one of "horror", unimpressed as he was by Darrow's unruly hair, rumpled jacket, egg-splattered shirt, suspenders, and askew tie. His opinion of Darrow would soon change. He later described his attorney as a great, simple, unaffected man, with a "deep-seated, all-embracing kindliness." In his book Life Plus Ninety-Nine Years, Leopold wrote that if asked to name the two men who "came closest to preaching the pure essence of love" he would say Jesus and Clarence Darrow.
It was Darrow's decision to change the boys' initial pleas to the charges of murder and kidnapping from "not guilty" (suggesting a traditional insanity defense) to "guilty." The decision was made primarily to prevent the state from getting two opportunities to get a death sentence. With "not guilty" pleas, the state had planned to try the boys first on one of the two charges, both of which carried the death penalty in Illinois, and if it failed to win a hanging on the first charge, try again on the second. The guilty plea also mea
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