People & Events: The Leopold and Loeb Trial
In the Leopold and Loeb trial of 1924, attorney Clarence Darrow achieved what many thought impossible. He saved the lives of two cold-blooded child-killers with the power of a speech.
Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb were teenagers living in a wealthy Chicago suburb when they were arrested for murder. Loeb had recently graduated, at 17 years old, from the University of Michigan, and planned to begin law school in the fall. He was obsessed with the idea of the perfect crime. His neighbor, a brilliant young man, Nathan Leopold, was a law student and a believer in Frederick Nietzsche's concept of the "superman" -- the idea that it is possible to rise above good and evil.
The two boys seemed an odd match. "Dickie" Loeb charmed everyone with his good looks and cool manner. Awkward-looking Nathan Leopold tended to hide in his friend's shadow. But the two young men formed a powerful bond. Nathan was in love with Richard and would do anything he wanted for sexual favors. He later wrote, "Loeb's friendship was necessary to me -- terribly necessary." His motive for the murder, he said, "was to please Dick."
Inspired by this odd mix of nihilistic philosophy, detective fiction, and misguided love, Leopold and Loeb hatched a plan to commit the "perfect crime." It was not so much the idea of murder that attracted them, but the idea of getting away with murder.
On May 21, 1924, Leopold and Loeb lured a young neighbor boy, 14-year-old Bobby Frank, into their car. They killed him with a chisel, and stuffed his body in a culvert. The next morning the Frank family received a special delivery letter -- a ransom note demanding $10,000 in unmarked bills for the return of the boy.
Before Mr. Frank could pay the ransom, police discovered the child's body. There was nothing linking the criminals to the crime except for a single pair of glasses. Police traced the glasses to a Chicago optometrist who had prescribed them for Nathan Leopold. If he hadn't lost his glasses, Leopold and his friend Loeb might have indeed gotten away with murder.
Leopold's and Loeb's parents hired the best, and most expensive, criminal attorney they could find -- Clarence Darrow. Darrow knew his clients would be convicted. His goal, as always, was to save them from the death penalty.
Americans read every detail of the Leopold and Loeb trial with fascination and repulsion. By 1924, automobiles like Ford's popular Model T were increasing criminal mobility; rising fears about crime would ultimately cause citizens to support a national police force. Chicago's WGN radio considered broadcasting the trial live, but decided it wasn't appropriate "entertainment" to send to families in their living rooms.
The trial reached its climax with Clarence Darrow's closing argument, delivered over twelve hours in a sweltering courtroom. Darrow admitted the guilt of his clients but argued that forces beyond their control influenced their actions. Law professor Phillip Johnson describes Darrow's argument this way: "Nature made them do it, evolution made them do it, Nietzsche made them do it. So they should not be sentenced to death for it." Darrow convinced the judge to spare his clients. Leopold and Loeb received life in prison.
The following year, Clarence Darrow played a leading role in another "trial of the century." He defended John Scopes for teaching evolution in violation of a Tennessee law. WGN radio did send their microphones to Dayton, Tennessee. It seemed a much better idea to cover a trial over ideas than to broadcast a sensational murder.
In 1936 Richard Loeb was killed in a prison fight with another inmate. In 1958, after thirty-four years behind bars, Nathan Leopold was released from prison. He died in 1971.
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