The Perfect CrimeAired February 9, 2016 In love with murder.
When Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, two well-educated college students from a wealthy suburb of Chicago, confessed to the brutal murder of 14-year-old Bobby Franks, the story made headlines across the country. The unlikely killers not only admitted their guilt, but also bragged that they had committed the crime simply for the thrill of it. As the sensational case unfolded during the summer of 1924, with famed defense attorney Clarence Darrow and Cook County Prosecutor Robert Crowe debating the death penalty and scores of commentators weighing in from the sidelines, the question of motive would be turned over and over again. What first seemed like a simple matter of evil gradually would give way to a complex assessment of the murderers' minds and a searing indictment of the forces that had shaped them, and set off a national debate about morality and capital punishment.
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Clarence Darrow (James Cromwell, audio): No one knows what will be the fate of the child they get or the child they bear... The mother who looks into the blue eyes of her little babe cannot help but wonder what will be the end of this child, whether it will be crowned with the greatest promises which her mind can imagine, or whether he may meet death from the gallows. -Clarence Darrow
Narrator: The body was found on the morning of May 22nd, 1924; a 14-year-old boy named Bobby Franks, who'd gone missing from his Chicago neighborhood the day before. A ransom note had been sent to his parents, but before they'd had a chance to pay, the kidnappers had killed their son.
John Logan, Playwright: The crime itself was so shocking. They bludgeoned a child to death, poured acid on his face to try to disguise his features. He was stripped of his clothes and left in a culvert. It was as desolate a place as you could possibly imagine leaving a body.
Narrator: The murder would rivet the nation, all the more so when police at last caught the killers: Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb -- wealthy, well-educated teenagers, who had done it, they said, for the sheer thrill.
Paula Fass, Historian: This was an inexplicable murder. These were children of privilege, of high ideals, who had everything given to them.
John Logan, Playwright: They were the last people who had any reason to commit a kidnapping, much less a murder.
Narrator: As the case unfolded over that hot summer of 1924 -- with Cook County Prosecutor Robert Crowe and famed defense attorney Clarence Darrow debating the death penalty and scores of commentators weighing in from the sidelines -- the question of motive would be turned over and over again. And what at first seemed a simple matter of evil gradually would give way to a complex assessment of the murderers' minds, and a searing indictment of the forces that had shaped them.
Simon Baatz, Historian: I think that the murder said something to people about American society. This was seen as a culmination of trends that were dangerous, that were immoral.
John A. Farrell, Writer: So you had all of a sudden this question thrown up against our culture which is that, is it rotten? Is there something wrong? Are we going in the wrong direction?
Paula Fass, Historian: There are mysteries wrapped inside of enigmas in this case and it's why it won't go away.
Narrator: On May 22nd, 1924, just hours after the body of Bobby Franks was found, the hunt for his killers got underway. To State's Attorney Robert Crowe -- a combative, 45-year-old Irishman who'd been elected on a promise to vanquish crime in Chicago -- the case was a career-making opportunity.
Simon Baatz, Historian: Robert Crowe was very politically ambitious, and his ambition was eventually to become mayor of Chicago, to become one of the most powerful men in the city. Crowe had certainly hoped that a success in this case would help him as a politician.
Narrator: The police had few clues: the ransom note, a tip about a grey sedan that had been idling where Bobby Franks was last seen, and a pair of eyeglasses found near the body.
Hal Higdon, Writer: When the glasses first were found, it was thought that they were Bobby Franks' glasses, they were even put on the corpse in the funeral home. And when his relative came in to identify the body he said, "Well, those aren't his glasses." And at that point they thought, well, they must be the glasses of one of the criminals.
Simon Baatz, Historian: The prescription was actually a very average one. What was unusual about the eyeglasses is that they had a certain hinge, and when the police began to inquire they found that only three pairs of eyeglasses with that hinge had been sold in the Chicago district.
Narrator: One of the three belonged to a man who'd been abroad for weeks, another to a woman who was quickly ruled out as a suspect. That left 19-year-old Nathan Leopold, from the exclusive neighborhood of Kenwood, on Chicago's South Side. Although it seemed doubtful that the boy had had any hand in the murder, Crowe sent three detectives to the Leopold home with orders to bring Nathan in for questioning.
Paula Fass, Historian: Nathan Leopold was studying for law school. He was an extraordinary young man with a potentially fantastic future before him.
Simon Baatz, Historian: Nathan Leopold was not regarded as a likely suspect simply because his family was very prominent. By 1924 the family was worth about $4 million. Why would someone like Nathan Leopold want to kidnap a young child? It didn't seem to make any sense.
Narrator: Crowe would spend the rest of the afternoon and long into the night downtown interrogating Nathan Leopold. When confronted with the eyeglasses, the young man shrugged. He was a recognized expert on birds, he boasted to Crowe, the author of an article about the rare Kirtland's Warbler. He frequently led birding expeditions near the place Franks' body had been found. The glasses, he said, must have fallen at some point from his jacket pocket. As for the night of Franks' murder, he'd spent it driving around town in his red Willys-Knight with his good friend Richard Loeb.
Hal Higdon, Writer: Leopold's alibi was that he and Loeb had gone off in the park, started drinking, picked up a couple of girls, fooled around with them a little bit.
Simon Baatz, Historian: Those two girls that they did pick up refused to have sex with them so they dropped them off, and then they continued home. That was the alibi they had.
Narrator: While Crowe interrogated Leopold, police ransacked his bedroom and study -- and turned up a letter to Richard Loeb, which suggested the boys were lovers. Crowe found it odd: if Leopold and Loeb were homosexuals, why would they have spent an evening chasing girls? Now, he wanted Richard Loeb brought in for questioning as well.
Simon Baatz, Historian: Richard Loeb graduated from high school when he was 14 years old and immediately matriculated at the University of Chicago as a full time student. He was very popular as a student. Richard Loeb's father was the vice-president of Sears Roebuck. He was worth about $10 million by 1924.
Narrator: Loeb corroborated his friend's alibi. Still, Crowe felt there was something suspicious about these young men. So long as their parents were cooperating, certain that their sons had been involved in no wrongdoing, Crowe planned to keep Leopold and Loeb in custody.
Meanwhile, the circumstantial evidence was mounting. The handwriting on the ransom note's envelope matched Nathan Leopold's, and the note itself had been linked to a typewriter he owned. Then, the Leopold family's chauffeur showed up at Crowe's office. He'd been sent by Nathan's father with information Mr. Leopold was sure proved the boys' innocence. The two could not have been anywhere near the place the body was left, the chauffeur said, because on the day in question, Nathan's car was being worked on in the garage. Certain now that the boys' alibi was a lie, Crowe ramped up the pressure.
Paula Fass, Historian: They had been left in rooms by themselves under drilling for 24 hours. This was a pinning down of these guys, and everything pointed to them.
Simon Baatz, Historian: The two boys were originally held separately in separate rooms, and Robert Crowe first went to Richard. Richard confessed and then gave Crowe details that only the murderers could have known. Crowe takes those details to Nathan and Nathan realizes that Richard is confessing, and then immediately Nathan also starts confessing but blaming everything on Richard. So Richard is blaming Nathan, Nathan is blaming Richard.
Narrator: The crime, both boys admitted, had been months in the planning -- and they'd had every expectation of getting away with it.
Simon Baatz, Historian: The intention was always to murder from the very beginning. It was all part of the plan to commit the perfect crime. To do this crime that would be sensational, and to get away with getting the ransom, that was the intention.
Narrator: As a police stenographer took down their words, first Loeb then Leopold described how they'd rented a car under an assumed name to use on the day of the murder, and typed out the ransom note even before they chose their victim.
Hal Higdon, Writer: The afternoon of the crime, they were rolling around the neighborhood in their rental car looking for a victim. Literally looking for a victim.
Simon Baatz, Historian: And suddenly on the other side of the street they saw Bobby Franks who was the cousin of Richard Loeb. They drive up behind Bobby Franks. Richard, who is sitting in the back seat, invites Bobby into the front seat and then as soon as Bobby is inside the car the murder takes place almost immediately.
Narrator: Leopold and Loeb confessed that they'd bludgeoned Franks with a chisel, then crammed a rag into his mouth -- which had suffocated him. Then they'd driven out to the wetlands near Lake Michigan, stopping along the way for hot dogs and root beer, poured acid over Bobby's face and genitals to obscure his identity, and pushed him into the drainage pipe where he'd been found.
Crowe, hoping to build his case and cement the boys' guilt in the public mind, now had Leopold and Loeb retrace their steps on the day of the murder, leading investigators and a caravan of journalists from the hardware store where they'd purchased the chisel all the way to the spot where they'd disposed of the body.
Hal Higdon, Writer: The two most helpful people in sorting out the evidence were Leopold and Loeb themselves. They were sort of giving a guided tour to the people who were going to eventually prosecute them. It just sort of almost boggles the mind how much they gave away.
Paula Fass, Historian: They literally demonstrated how they had done it and walked them through the scenes of the crime as if once they were discovered they were proud of the plotting. They became almost braggarts about it.
Narrator: Crowe was elated. It was an open-and-shut case, he told the press, a premeditated murder carried out in cold blood. He vowed that justice would come in the form of the death penalty.
Hal Higdon, Writer: The morning papers after the murder -- front-page story -- and literally for two, three, four months it was the front page story on every newspaper in Chicago.
Carol Steiker, Professor of Law: It is not possible to over-state the media attention given to this case. This case made the headlines, the front page, of The New York Times. This is not Chicago, The New York Times, three days in a row. It was a case of tremendous sensation.
Narrator: Suddenly, Leopold and Loeb were everywhere, and the horror of the murder began to pale before the specter of the murderers: two arrogant young men in stylish suits, smoking cigarettes and chatting blithely with reporters about the killing of Bobby Franks.
Carol Steiker, Professor of Law: They said they did it because they could, because he was there, because it was fun -- for the thrill of it. They didn't seem to show much remorse at all.
Narrator: Of the two, Nathan Leopold seemed the more chilling figure. When asked how he felt about Bobby Franks' murder, Leopold casually replied that it didn't concern him. "It is as easy to justify such a death," he said, "as it is to justify an entomologist impaling a beetle on a pin."
John Logan, Playwright: Leopold was seen as the monster. He seemed like an evil mastermind whereas Loeb seemed like such a carefree playboy who could easily be led astray by this stronger, darker intellect. The truth of the matter, of course, is the complete opposite.
Narrator: The boys had met four years earlier, in the summer of 1920. Richard Loeb was then 15. He'd not only graduated from high school, but already had completed his first year of college at the University of Chicago. Nathan Leopold, just six months older, was equally precocious: he was to begin his freshman term at the university that fall.
John Logan, Playwright: They both zoomed through school, zoomed into college well ahead of their peers. So I think once they were on each other's radar there was a sense of them sniffing each other out, of realizing here, in a way, is a kindred spirit.
Narrator: In many ways, the two had been cut from the same cloth. Both the scion of wealthy Jewish families, they'd been raised in comfort and had spent their childhoods in the constant care of governesses, mere blocks from one another. They became fast friends -- somewhat to the bewilderment of those who knew them both.
John Logan, Playwright: Richard Loeb was a dazzling human being. He was the kind of human being that when he walked through a room the molecular energy changed. You couldn't help looking at him. He wore clothes incredibly well. He had a flashing smile. He was dazzlingly handsome.
Nathan Leopold was the complete opposite. There is something beetle-browed and intense and dark about Leopold. He was the kind of guy I think you'd instantly take a dislike to at a party. He was the know-it-all who would have an opinion on everything. Leopold fell in love with Richard Loeb and idolized him and Loeb felt it was nice to have an acolyte. It was nice to have someone around him who would always make him feel beautiful or intelligent or special. I think the deeper truth -- they sensed another predator in the room, and they were drawn to each other.
Narrator: What would end with the murder of Bobby Franks had begun almost innocently, with a scheme Richard devised to cheat at cards. That small transgression had bound the boys together, put them in league against the rest of the world, but Richard longed to play more dangerous games.
John Logan, Playwright: It was crime that fascinated Loeb. He read detective novels, pulp periodicals, he devoured the newspapers for stories of crime. And I think to him it's because there's a certain exceptionality about crime. Criminals are not of the common run of humanity. And he felt he was not in the common run of humanity.
Narrator: Nathan was more than willing to join in, but he wanted something in return. So the boys made a secret pact.
Simon Baatz, Historian: There was an arrangement that Richard would agree to have sex with Nathan if Nathan accompanied Richard when he did his crimes. Richard started out by committing small acts of vandalism -- stealing cars, setting fire to buildings. It escalated more and more, and then eventually Richard suggested the idea to Nathan of committing a murder.
Narrator: Nathan was not only agreeable, he urged Richard on with a concept taken from the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: that of the Ubermensch, or superman -- a being so exceptional that he was bound by neither law nor morality.
John Logan, Playwright: Unfortunately they invested in their own sort of dark and twisted version of the Nietzschean ideal where they began to self-identify as the Nietzschean superman. They wanted to create a unique act -- do something that was, in their view, exalted and befitting of a Nietzschean superman, and they thought this act being so clever, committing the perfect murder, would be a way for them to demonstrate their superiority over other people.
Paula Fass, Historian: They were a couple of boys playing a strange and sadistic game. Now obviously this had an erotic dimension, but it also had a kind of intellectual dimension, and that I think is key to understanding what was going on between Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold.
Narrator: Neither had ever considered the possibility that they would be caught. Now, the two supermen were behind bars, and if the state's attorney had his way, they would end on the gallows.
Hours after news of the confessions broke, the Loeb family sought the counsel of the country's preeminent criminal defense attorney, Clarence Darrow -- soon to be known as the "attorney for the damned."
John A. Farrell, Writer: Clarence Darrow was, at this point in his life, 67 years old. He had just come off an amazing string of victories defending a bunch of corrupt politicians in Chicago. Clarence Darrow was thought as a legal miracle worker. Many of his cases -- his guys or his gals are found with the guns or a bloody knife in their hands. And that's why he was seen as the attorney for the damned.
Narrator: "Get them a life sentence instead of death," Loeb's uncle begged Darrow. "We'll pay you anything, only for God's sake, don't let them hang." It was a request Darrow could not refuse.
John A. Farrell, Writer: He hated capital punishment. He did probably 60 or more capital punishment cases in his career. He lost the first one to the hangman, and he never got over it. His philosophy was definitely, "hate the sin and love the sinner." He believed people act the way they act because they're brought up in poverty or because they themselves have been ill-treated, and that the supreme virtue was mercy.
Simon Baatz, Historian: He believed that everything we do is determined by our upbringing, by our childhood, by our parents, and therefore there's very little free choice. No free will. So he believed accordingly that capital punishment, the death penalty, was something that should not take place.
Narrator: Darrow was by no means alone. The previous quarter century had seen movements to abolish the death penalty in no fewer than 10 states, while the number of executions nationwide had sharply declined. With the issue still being hotly debated all over the country, Darrow sensed an opportunity to tip the scales.
John A. Farrell, Writer: He wants to make a statement about capital punishment. In the Leopold and Loeb case, he knows he has this amazing spotlight. Everybody is listening around the world, not just in the United States.
Narrator: "The actor-egoist in him sought opportunities to play great parts," one writer said of Darrow. "Hero parts."
Darrow showed up for his first meeting with his clients in a rumpled seersucker suit and a shirt that bore traces of his breakfast. "My first impression," Nathan Leopold later said, "was horror."
John Logan, Playwright: You couldn't imagine three more different planets in constellation. There was Loeb, who was sleek and his lapels could cut you like a knife. Leopold who was intense and brooding and his hair was always shining and he was very sort of well put together. And then Clarence Darrow who was a complete shambling mess. It was like a hobbit suddenly walked into a room of tango dancers.
Narrator: By the time Darrow arrived, Leopold and Loeb had been in Crowe's custody for three days, talking all the while. The state's attorney had even arranged for Leopold and Loeb to be examined by Chicago's leading alienists -- as psychiatrists were known -- in an effort to block what he assumed would be Darrow's only possible line of defense: not guilty by reason of insanity.
Carol Steiker, Professor of Law: Crowe's alienists all said that the defendants were perfectly sane and there was nothing wrong with them other than that they simply failed to appreciate the enormity of what they'd done. But that was hardly insanity, that was, in the state's view, you know, evil, not madness.
Narrator: On June 11th, Darrow appeared with his clients before Judge John Caverly. As expected, he entered a not guilty plea, which gave him several weeks to prepare his defense. Next, he gathered a team of experts from all over the country to evaluate Leopold and Loeb, including a physician, an adolescent criminologist, and a psychiatrist versed in the new analytic techniques of Sigmund Freud. Over the next five weeks, Leopold and Loeb would be subject to rigorous examinations derived from the cutting edge of modern science. Their bodily functions were measured, intelligence tested, family histories probed. Meanwhile, the boys' unfathomable crime prompted a rash of national hand-wringing over the perils of modern life.
John Logan, Playwright: It did say something about the 20s. You know, the music is wild, the skirts were short, there was gin, it was a fast living society. So the madcap fun was suddenly a very dark implication of unchecked emotion, unchecked youth, unchecked wildness can lead to things.
Paula Fass, Historian: So there was a lot of uneasiness about who we were and where we were going. You had some ministers saying it was because Americans were over-educating their children. There was too much prosperity, too much modernism, too much indulgence of American children taking place at the time. All of these things rained down on the Leopold and Loeb case.
Narrator: Concerned for his clients' image, Darrow sent men into the streets of Chicago to gauge public opinion. Sixty percent of those queried thought Leopold and Loeb should hang.
John A. Farrell, Writer: Darrow's early letters to his son and to his ex-wife from early June are very bleak and they say, 'I doubt that I'll be able to save these boys.' And this is a man who has pulled the trick off dozens of times throughout his career, but he says, you know, "the newspapers are just too bad."
Narrator: On July 21st, two months after Bobby Franks' murder, Darrow and his clients joined Prosecutor Crowe in the Criminal Court Building, to present motions before Judge John Caverly. It was 10am, and though the already sweltering courtroom was filled to capacity, the crowd was mostly silent. Darrow, disheveled as ever, his thumbs hooked under his trademark suspenders, spoke first, and turned the entire case on its head by entering a plea of guilty.
John A. Farrell, Writer: He stood up and told the judge that we're going to change the plea to guilty. Reporters jumped and ran to the rooms and all the afternoon newspapers was that Leopold and Loeb are pleading guilty.
Hal Higdon, Writer: And when you plead somebody guilty it changes the game entirely because now you're not going to impanel a jury. So then it became the judge's decision to decide whether they would hang or whether they would be just sent to prison for life.
Narrator: Crowe, who moments earlier had confidently swaggered into the courtroom chomping on a cigar, was apoplectic.
Simon Baatz, Historian: Crowe thought he had everything sewn up, that he was all ready for a plea by the defense of not guilty on account of insanity.
Carol Steiker, Professor of Law: Darrow has this radical idea that he's going to introduce evidence about his clients' backgrounds, and about their mental states to argue for a sentence less than death. Darrow's strategy to introduce this evidence was absolutely ground breaking. It was so groundbreaking that no one had ever heard of it. The state's attorney thought it was completely ridiculous and he shouldn't be allowed to do this.
John Logan, Playwright: Darrow wanted to present psychological weakness as a mitigating factor for sentencing. So essentially what he was saying to Judge Caverly was, 'We admit that we committed the crime, but I'd like to show you why we committed the crime.'
Narrator: When the sentencing hearing got underway on the morning of July 23rd, 1924, the stifling courtroom was so thronged with spectators that reporters commandeered the empty jury box. Crowe presented the state's evidence first -- armed with a lengthy list of witnesses who would provide testimony on every ghastly detail of Leopold and Loeb's crime.
Carol Steiker, Professor of Law: Even though it's not a trial, Crowe has to present evidence to show the defendants' guilt. He does so quite thoroughly. He introduces more than 80 witnesses, and when he's done, there's absolutely no doubt in anyone's mind that Leopold and Loeb committed these offenses.
Hal Higdon, Writer: These witnesses would appear, and Darrow would just sort of sit in the corner and do nothing because he realized that to cross-examine the witness, even gave more spirit to what was there, so he remained silent.
Narrator: Crowe hammered away at the facts of the case for seven full days: the senseless, brutal slaying of a 14-year-old boy, the calculated disposal of the material evidence, the glib demeanor of the killers once they'd been caught. It was, the prosecutor said, "the most cruel, cowardly, dastardly murder ever committed in the annals of American jurisprudence." He demanded the death penalty.
Throughout, Leopold and Loeb, sat just behind their attorneys, snickering. "It was remarkable," one observer noted, "to see two kids on trial for their life acting like that."
Simon Baatz, Historian: One of the things that was very striking was their absence of remorse. They never apologized. They never said sorry. And of course their families were terribly distraught and upset.
Paula Fass, Historian: Leopold's father came to every single day of the hearing. The Loeb family was represented by one of Loeb's brothers. The parents retreated to their summer home. I think they never came to grips with what had happened. I think they were in as much shock as anybody else.
Narrator: On July 30th, the defense finally took charge of the room. It was his intention, Darrow told Judge Caverly, to show that his clients were diseased, both physically and mentally, and therefore not responsible for their actions. Calling his team of experts to the stand one by one, Darrow spelled out for the court the findings from the elaborate pre-trial examinations of Leopold and Loeb, offering a catalogue of the boys' abnormalities. One witness testified to their dysfunctional endocrine glands; another to the delusions that had led to their crime.
Paula Fass, Historian: The psychiatrists argue that, in fact, it was Loeb and not Leopold who was responsible and that Leopold had been his servant, that there had been a master/slave relationship between the two of them.
Simon Baatz, Historian: Richard had this fantasy of being a master criminal and Nathan had the fantasy of being a slave to a king. And it's that inner fantasy life that created the bond between the two boys.
Narrator: Referring to the two as Babe and Dickie, their childhood nicknames, the witnesses for the defense argued that both boys suffered from stunted emotional growth. Richard, in particular, was "a little child emotionally, still talking to his teddy bear," one psychiatrist told the court. "He is infantile, I should say somewhere around four or five years old."
Simon Baatz, Historian: Both boys had been neglected by their parents. Both had a governess and these governesses exerted an enormous amount of control over the children. Nathan Leopold had been abused sexually by his governess when he was about 12 years old. With Richard Loeb it was a case that his governess virtually stepped in as a mother figure, pushed him to excel in the classroom, and as he tells it to the psychiatrists, he began to be so resentful that he started to lie, and Richard himself traced his crimes back to those lies that he told his governess.
John A. Farrell, Writer: It took a tremendous amount of chutzpa but Clarence Darrow made the argument that these two, very privileged sons of very wealthy families were actually victims. They were in this very sheltered life with cold families and that therefore they should be pitied rather than hated.
Narrator: To Crowe, the entire defense was preposterous. He fairly wore himself out with objections and vehement cross-examinations.
John A. Farrell, Writer: Constantly through the trial he is going back, returning to the savagery of the crime. Because he knows what Darrow is doing. He knows that he has to pressure Judge Caverly in the opposite direction. So the whole thing is a struggle between these two legal titans -- Crowe and Darrow -- for the judge's mind.
Narrator: There were plenty of Americans who agreed with Crowe that the boys' guilt was all that mattered. But for many others, Darrow's defense offered an intriguing new perspective on human behavior.
Paula Fass, Historian: What the Leopold and Loeb defense team did was to introduce Freudian interpretations into the courtroom, and that was all very new. And it just grabbed the American public. It riveted them. The parents who read the newspapers were fixated on what they could learn about their own more normal children from these young people. What about my child?
John A. Farrell, Writer: The major effect of all the scientific testimony was that it convinced the people of Chicago, America and around the world that there were indeed motivations. It wasn't just a matter of good and evil. There are flaws in human beings and triggers that make people act the way they do.
Narrator: On August 18th, after two and half weeks of testimony, the defense rested. What remained now were the closing arguments, the last chance for both sides to convince Judge Caverly to either spare the boys' lives or else sentence them to hang until they were dead.
The curious spectators began to descend on the Criminal Court Building at mid-day on Friday, August 22nd. By 2pm, more than 2,000 people had massed at the doors and begun pushing their way in. They had come to hear Clarence Darrow's closing argument -- rumored to be the last the legendary attorney would give before his retirement.
John A. Farrell, Writer: Darrow teased the press that this could be his last big case. This was a way of Darrow to focus attention. It wasn't just Clarence Darrow defending Leopold and Loeb it was "Clarence Darrow's last stand."
Clarence Darrow (James Cromwell, audio): Your Honor, I have stood here for three months as one might stand at the ocean trying to sweep back the tide. I hope the seas are subsiding and the wind is falling, and I believe they are, but I wish to make no false pretense to this court. The easy thing and the popular thing to do is to hang my clients... we are asking this court to save their lives.
Narrator: Speaking continuously for the better part of three days, Darrow offered the court a rambling summary of the reasons Leopold and Loeb should be spared.
John A. Farrell, Writer: If you read Clarence Darrow's arguments today, they sound in desperate need of an editor, but if you think about the effect that they had in the courtroom before the age of television and radio when this was supreme human drama, you realize that he was very smoothly, seductively creating a mood, casting a spell, touching their emotions, quite masterfully.
Clarence Darrow (James Cromwell, audio): Before I would tie a noose around the neck of a boy I would try to call back into my mind the emotions of youth... The brain of the child is the home of dreams, of castles, of visions, of illusions and delusions, and whether they take one shape or another shape depends not on the dreamy boy, but on what surrounds him.
Narrator: Again and again, Darrow spoke of youth -- reminding Judge Caverly, that Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, at 19, were but children. During the previous century, no one younger than 23 had been executed in Illinois on a guilty plea. For the prosecutor to demand such an execution was barbarous, Darrow said, and evidence of the savagery the recent world war had unleashed.
Clarence Darrow (James Cromwell, audio): We are used to blood, your Honor... we have not only had it shed in bucketsful, we have it shed in rivers, lakes and oceans, we have delighted in it, we have preached it... until the world has been drenched in blood and has left its stains of blood upon every human heart.
Hal Higdon, Writer: It was almost as though he had been scripted by Shakespeare. He was a brilliant man. He had a tremendous capture of the law. He didn't need notes. He was the consummate actor.
Clarence Darrow (James Cromwell, audio): I am not pleading so much for these boys as I am for the infinite number of others to follow... Your Honor stands between the past and the future. You may hang these boys; you may hang them by the neck until they are dead, but in doing it you will turn your face towards the past.
Carol Steiker, Professor Law: Clarence Darrow had that courtroom eating out of his hands. He brought Loeb, who giggled and chuckled and smirked throughout his own trial, to tears. The judge had tears in his eyes when Darrow was done.
Narrator: Prosecutor Crowe, in his rebuttal, fought back hard. He even went so far as to insinuate -- without any conclusive evidence -- that there had been a sexual motive for the crime.
John A. Farrell, Writer: Crowe introduces the idea that poor Bobby Franks was molested either before and or after death, at which point, Judge Caverly tells the female reporters that they have to leave his courtroom because their dainty ears can't be listening to such awful testimony.
Hal Higdon, Writer: Attorney Crowe really was sort of between a rock and a hard place. They were pleaded guilty, so all he can do is bring in the grotesque evidence of the case, how horrible it was and show what terrible, terrible beings they were.
Narrator: If Judge Caverly was leaning one way or the other when the hearing finally concluded on its 32nd day, he gave no indication. But Chicago's bookies had already begun offering three to one odds against a death sentence.
For 12 days, Chicago and the world waited while Caverly wrestled with his decision. For many Americans, what hung in the balance was not merely the fate of Leopold and Loeb, but the very meaning of justice. "You who sit there at your breakfast table, so comfortable," one columnist wrote, "would you stand for justice, no matter if by taking such a stand you had to walk to the foot of the gallows with your own son?"
Simon Baatz, Historian: Is it going to be life in prison, or is it going to be the death penalty? Caverly is not very happy with this situation because the whole responsibility rests upon his shoulders. Whatever decision he makes he is going to be criticized.
Narrator: Finally, on September 10th, the parties to the case assembled once again in Caverly's courtroom. Security was tight, the mood tense, as Caverly began to read from three sheets of lined paper.
John A. Farrell, Writer: Judge Caverly comes out to give the verdict and he says basically, "I'm not going to be moved by any of the scientific evidence -- it was interesting, gentlemen, but they pled guilty." Nathan Leopold thought he was heading for the hangman.
Narrator: But the judge went on, and it swiftly became clear that Leopold and Loeb were headed not for the gallows, but for prison. "The court believes that it is within his province," Caverly explained, "to decline to impose the sentence of death on persons who are not of full age."
John A. Farrell, Writer: One of the most interesting things about Judge Caverly's ruling is how, in the end, how little all that scientific testimony, all the alienists' testimony, that talk about glandular secretions, how little it all mattered. In the end he clung to that legal idea of precedent.
Carol Steiker, Professor of Law: The judge says, 'I'm basing my decision not to impose the death penalty entirely on the defendants' youth.' I can only imagine what the prosecution thought of the judge's sentence because I could imagine them saying, 'if these guys don't get the death penalty, who should get the death penalty?'
Narrator: Leopold and Loeb were sentenced to life in prison for the murder of Bobby Franks, plus 99 years for the kidnapping. The verdict would provoke outrage across the country, and accusations that the defendants had bought their way out of the hangman's noose. But Darrow had saved his clients' lives, and dealt a powerful blow to the death penalty. As he told the reporters who crowded around the defense table, he now planned to launch a campaign to end capital punishment in Illinois.
Before leaving the courtroom, Leopold and Loeb shook Darrow's hand. In the morning, the pair would be bound for the penitentiary at Joliet. Back in his cell at the county jail, Nathan called to the sheriff and arranged for what surely would be the boys' last good meal: thick steaks smothered in onions and chocolate éclairs.
Nathan Leopold (archival): Ladies and Gentleman, a month ago I begged the members of the parole board for their compassion. They found it in their hearts to grant it...
Narrator: By the time Nathan Leopold was released from prison in 1958, he'd been behind bars for more than 33 years. Richard Loeb had died in prison two decades before, murdered by a fellow inmate who claimed Loeb had made unwanted sexual advances. Clarence Darrow had died back in 1938, at the age of 80, having spent much of his time outside of the courtroom advocating with little success against the death penalty. Swarmed by reporters outside of the prison, Leopold pleaded for privacy.
Nathan Leopold (archival): "I appeal as solemnly as I know how, to you and to your editors and to your publishers and to society at large to agree that the only piece of news about me is that I have ceased to be news."
Narrator: Leopold and Loeb would never again dominate headlines. But the perpetrators of the "perfect crime" would continue to compel fascination for decades to come.
Carol Steiker, Professor of Law: I think this case has a continuous hold on our imaginations because of the way it interrogates the idea of evil and whether or not there really is such a thing. Darrow tried to get us away from thinking in terms of monsters and kind of unfathomable darkness, to try to understand the world in terms of sickness and health, youth and maturity, shades of gray, rather than the black and white of good and evil.
John Logan, Playwright: One of the terrifying implications of the case in 1924 was, if the boys who had everything in the world ahead of them could do this act, why could not other people do this act? And I think in a way that's why we're still discussing the case because they did something mad, and we're all capable of doing something mad. Given the forces upon them or upon any of us, what are we capable of?
Clarence Darrow (James Cromwell, audio): Why then did these two boys commit this rash and horrible deed? I presume they know less about the reason than others who have studied the case and the boys as well. There are many things that human beings cannot understand, and of all the fathomless questions that confront and confuse men, the most baffling is the human mind.