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Darrow argues the Leopold-Loeb case before Judge Caverly

Trial of the century

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.

Nathan Leopold

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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 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 was his primary reason for participating in the crime.

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.

Bobby Franks

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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.

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. . 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.

Ransom note sent to Franks

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.

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.

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.

Darrow's decision to plead the boys guilty undoubtedly was based in part on his belief that the judge who would hear their case, Judge John R. Caverly, was a "kindly and discerning" man. With the public seemingly unanimous in calling for death, Darrow did not want to face a jury. In his summation Darrow noted, "where responsibility is divided by twelve, it is easy to say ‘away with him'; but, your honor, if these boys are to hang, you must do must be by your cool, premeditated act, without a chance to shift responsibility."

Even Sigmund Freud was asked to come to Chicago for the trial, but his poor health at the time prevented the visit. The prosecution argued that psychiatric testimony was only admissible if the defendants claimed insanity, while the defense argued strenuously that evidence of mental disease should be considered as a mitigating factor in consideration of the sentence.

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Judge Caverly listens to testimony of a boy who talked to Loeb

The trial (technically a hearing, rather than a trial, because of the entry of guilty pleas) of Leopold and Loeb lasted just over one month. The state presented over a hundred witnesses proving-- needlessly, in the opinion of many-- every element of the crime. The defense presented extensive psychiatric evidence describing the defendants' emotional immaturity, obsessions with crime and Nietzschean philosophy, alcohol abuse, glandular abnormalities, and sexual longings and insecurities.

On August 22, 1924, Clarence Darrow began his summation for the defense in a "courtroom jammed to suffocation, with hundreds of men and women rioting in the corridors outside." As a newspaper reporter observed, the setting underscored Darrow's argument "that the court was the only thing standing between the boys and a bloodthirsty mob." For over twelve hours Darrow reminded Judge Caverly of the defendants' youth, genetic inheritance, surging sexual impulses, and the many external influences that had led them to the commission of their crime.

What had this boy had to do with it? He was not his own father; he was not his own mother....All of this was handed to him. He did not surround himself with governesses and wealth. He did not make himself. And yet he is to be compelled to pay." In pleading that Leopold be spared , Darrow said, "Tell me that you can visit the wrath of fate and chance and life and eternity upon a nineteen- year-old boy!"

Darrow attacked the death penalty as atavistic, saying it "roots back to the beast and the jungle." Time and time again Darrow challenged the notion of "an eye for an eye": " When Darrow finally ended his appeal, tears were streaming down the face of Judge Caverly and many other courtroom spectators. One reporter wrote, "There was scarcely any telling where his voice had finished and where silence had begun. It lasted for a minute, two minutes."

State's Attorney Robert Crowe closed for the prosecution. He sarcastically attacked the arguments of "the distinguished gentlemen whose profession it is to protect murder in Cook County, and concerning whose health thieves inquire before they go out and commit a crime." Addressing Leopold, Crowe said, "I wonder now, Nathan, whether you think there is a God or not. I wonder whether you think it is pure accident that this disciple of Nietzsche's philosophy dropped his glasses or whether it was an act of Divine Providence to visit upon your miserable carcasses the wrath of God." (Leopold, much later, said he wondered the same thing.)

State's Attorney Robert Crowe

He reserved his strongest language for the two defendants, who he referred to as "cowardly perverts", "snakes", "atheists", "spoiled smart alecs", and "mad dogs."

  For Crowe, this was a premeditated crime committed by two remorseless defendants, and the appropriate punishment was obvious. The "real defense" in the case, according to Crowe, was "Clarence Darrow and his peculiar philosophy of life." It ought not be a defense, suggested Crowe, who closed by asking Judge Caverly to "execute justice and righteousness in the land."

Two weeks later Caverly announced his decision. He called the murder "a crime of singular atrocity." Caverly said that his "judgment cannot be affected" by the causes of crime and that it was "beyond the province of this court" to "predicate ultimate responsibility for human acts." Nonetheless, Caverly said that "the consideration of the age of the defendants" and the possible benefits to criminology that might come from future study of them persuaded him that life in prison, not death, was the better punishment. He said that he was doing them no favor: "To the offenders, particularly of the type they are, the prolonged years of confinement may well be the severest form of retribution and expiation."


Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold were moved to the Joliet penitentiary. In 1936, Loeb was slashed and killed with a razor in a showroom fight with James Day, another inmate. Leopold rushed to the prison hospital to be at his old friend's bedside as he died.

Leopold managed to keep intellectually active in prison. He taught in the prison school, mastered twenty-seven foreign languages, worked as an x-ray technician in the prison hospital, reorganized the prison library, volunteered to be tested with an experimental malaria vaccine, and designed a new system of prison education. In the 1950's, an elderly and now retired Robert Crowe reportedly offered to write a letter to the Illinois Parole Board urging his release. In 1958, after thirty-four years of confinement, Leopold was released from prison. To escape the publicity accompanying the release of Compulsion, a movie based on the 1924 crime (and which Leopold and his lawyer, Elmer Gertz, challenged in a lawsuit as an invasion of privacy),

Leopold migrated to Puerto Rico. He earned a master's degree, taught mathematics, and worked in hospitals and church missions. He wrote a book entitled The Birds of Puerto Rico. Despite saying in a 1960 interview that he was still deeply in love with Richard Loeb, he married.

Leopold said he often found himself wondering during his years in Puerto Rico at what point the thirty-four dark years in prison became balanced by the subsequent sunshine of freedom. Leopold died following ten days of hospitalization on August 30, 1971.

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