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Clarence Darrow

Things To Remember While Reading Excerpts From "the Plea Of Clarence Darrow":, Excerpt From "the Plea Of Clarence Darrow"

Excerpt from "The Plea of Clarence Darrow"

Reprinted from The Amazing Crime and Trial of Leopold and Loeb, edited by Maureen McKernan

Published in 1996

Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold were nineteen years old, exceptionally bright students, and from wealthy families. Loeb was a handsome University of Chicago student and Leopold an ornithologist (person who studies birds). The Leopolds were wealthy German Jewish immigrants who made their fortune shipping grains and minerals on the Great Lakes.

Nathan entered college at age sixteen and graduated from University of Chicago in 1923 with high honors. He was taking law classes with plans to attend Harvard Law School. Richard's father was a millionaire executive in charge of the massive Sears-Roebuck mail order business. Richard was a brilliant child, graduating from high school at age fourteen and becoming one of the youngest graduates in University of Michigan history, at age seventeen.

"When the public is interested and demands a punishment, no matter what the offense, great or small, it thinks of only one punishment, and that is death."

Their lives, however, would take a dramatic and tragic turn on Wednesday, May 21, 1924. That afternoon Bobby Franks, fourteen years of age, was walking home from school when Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold pulled up in a rental car and offered him a ride. Bobby knew both the nineteen-year-olds since they all three lived in a wealthy neighborhood of Nathan Leopold (center left) and Richard Loeb (center right), convicted of kidnapping and murdering a fourteen-year-old, leave the county jail in Chicago, January 28, 1936. (AP/Wide World Photos) Chicago known as Kenwood, and Loeb was Bobby's neighbor. As soon as Bobby was in the car they hit him over the head with a heavy metal chisel and stuffed a piece of cloth down his throat suffocating him.

While waiting for dark Leopold and Loeb had dinner at a hotdog stand. They then drove to Wolf Lake, took the boy's clothes off, poured hydrochloric acid over him to obscure his identity, and dumped the body in a culvert. On their way back to town, they mailed a ransom note to Franks home demanding $10,000. The note provided instructions on how to deliver the money. They warned about contacting authorities and not following instructions. They went to Loeb's house where they burned bloodstained clothes and tried taking any bloodstains out of their rental car. The two young men then stayed up late that night playing a game.

The special delivery ransom letter arrived the following morning at the Franks' residence. A phone call from Loeb and Leopold to Bobby's father Jacob gave further instructions on how to deliver the money to a particular drugstore address. In the confusion, Jacob forgot the address of the drugstore mentioned and was unable to carry through with the delivery. Later that same day the body of a boy, identified as Bobby, was found in a culvert at Wolf Lake.

Rewards for the capture of the murderer quickly mounted. Police investigators and newspaper reporters searched for clues. It was discovered that a pair of glasses found near the body of Franks had an unusual hinge. Sales records showed that only three had been sold in the Chicago area, one to Leopold. When approached by authorities, however, he explained that he often bird-watched in the area and the glasses had recently fallen out of his pocket there.

On May 29, 1924, both Leopold and Loeb were detained and questioned separately by authorities at the La Salle Hotel. They avoided the police station because of the intense media coverage. Though their stories did not match perfectly, police were unable to build a case and finally let them go. Newspaper investigators discovered much more substantial evidence. The type on the ransom note matched a portable typewriter that Loeb had sometimes used.

Faced with the new evidence, Leopold and Loeb confessed to the murder and kidnapping, and told their story. They Nathan Leopold (left) and Richard Loeb (right) with attorney Clarence Darrow (center). Seeking life in prison instead of death, the two men hired Darrow, a staunch opponent of the death penalty, after confessing to the abduction and brutal murder of fourteen-year-old Bobby Franks. (© Bettmann/Corbis)
readily revealed the kidnapping had been planned for months as a legal challenge to the two bored students. Through the following days the two young men took police to locations where they found various pieces of evidence including the chisel.

The case was a major story in the newspapers. The public demanded swift trials and executions. To this point, the boys were not represented by lawyers during the questioning. Albert Loeb went to sixty-seven-year-old Clarence Darrow, known for his personal opposition to the death penalty. Loeb sought a life sentence rather than death penalties.

On June 5, 1924, a grand jury indicted Leopold and Loeb for murder and kidnapping. The following day their full confessions were published in the Chicago newspapers. The trial began on July 21. Darrow immediately stunned the court by changing their pleas from not guilty to guilty. Everyone had assumed he would be using a defense of not guilty by reason of insanity. Darrow knew a not guilty plea would lead to a trial by jury; given the confessions and evidence, he figured a jury would be more likely to sentence his clients to death than Judge John R. Caverly. On August 22, 1924, Darrow made his impassioned two hour speech against the death penalty.

For More Information


Higdon, Hal. Crime of the Century: The Leopold & Loeb Case. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1975.

Leopold, Nathan F., Jr. Life Plus 99 Years. New York: Doubleday, 1958.

McKernan, Maureen. The Amazing Crime and Trial of Leopold and Loeb. Holmes Beach, FL: Gaunt, Inc., 1996.

Tierney, Kevin. Darrow, A Biography. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, Publishers, 1979.

Web Sites

"Illinois v. Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb." University of Missouri Faculty: Famous Trials. http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/leoploeb/leopold.htm (accessed August 19, 2004).

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal Law