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Leopold and Loeb Trial

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In 1924, the city of Chicago, Illinois, was shocked by the brutal and senseless murder of adolescent Bobby Franks. The crime resulted in a sensational murder trial wherein eminent attorney CLARENCE DARROW achieved a brilliant victory despite an overwhelming amount of incriminating evidence.

Nathan Leopold (b. November 19, 1904, in Chicago, Illinois; d. August 29, 1971, in San Juan, Puerto Rico), age 19, and Richard Loeb (b. June 11, 1905, in Chicago, Illinois; d. January 28, 1936, in Joliet, Illinois), age 18, college students from wealthy families, were regarded as unusually intelligent. Their extraordinary reasoning powers compelled them to construct and execute the perfect crime. They decided that KIDNAPPING and murder would challenge their mental capacities to the fullest.

The two young men plotted their crime in 1923. They chose the names Louis Mason and Morton Ballard as aliases and successfully stole a typewriter from the University of Michigan to type a ransom note that would be difficult, if not impossible, to trace. By 1924 they had perfected their plan and accumulated their other necessities, including a chisel and acid.

Leopold and Loeb chose their victim by chance. The ransom note, already typed, had not been addressed to anyone in particular, since the abduction of their victim would be a spontaneous happening. On May 21, 1924, Leopold and Loeb drove around in a rented car near the Harvard School, a private preparatory school in the Kenwood area of Chicago's south side. The first possible victim was a youth named Levinson,

Richard Loeb (left) and Nathan Leopold committed a murder that shocked Chicago in the 1920s. They later confessed, but prominent lawyer Clarence Darrow won life sentences rather than the death penalty for both of them.

who was an acquaintance of the two kidnappers. They drove around the block but lost sight of him. The next student they saw was fourteen-year-old Bobby Franks. Bobby Franks knew Leopold and Loeb from the neighborhood, and when the two college students offered Bobby a ride home, the boy accepted. Once he was in the car he was bludgeoned to death with a chisel. On the way to dispose of the body, the two killers stopped for something to eat. They then proceeded to a deserted area of Chicago, where they dumped Bobby's body. They buried his clothes and poured acid on his face to hinder positive identification.

The Franks family was frantic with worry over their missing son. Leopold and Loeb began a ritual of telephone calls promising Bobby's safe return upon receipt of $10,000. A ransom note delivered the next day confirmed this demand.

As Mr. Franks was leaving to deliver the ransom money as directed by the kidnappers, he was notified that his son's body had been found. An extensive police investigation ensued, but Leopold and Loeb had cleverly disposed of all evidence. The two men followed the events of the frustrating investigation and joined in local discussions concerning the case.

There was one flaw in the perfect crime, and that was human frailty. A pair of glasses had been discovered near the site of the murdered boy's body, and the prescription was traced to Nathan Leopold. Unperturbed, Leopold stated that he had been with his friend Richard Loeb on the day of the murder, and they had spent the day driving around Chicago in the car owned by the Leopold family. The glasses were lost during a day of birdwatching, which Leopold often pursued in conjunction with an ornithology class he was teaching. Since they were seldom used, he had not noticed that the glasses were missing. Leopold's story was feasible, and his upstanding family and educational background added to his credibility; he was released.

More evidence began to emerge against Leopold and Loeb as the investigation continued. A paper typed by Leopold for a class was discovered, and when it was compared to the typewritten ransom note, the type was suspiciously similar. Further investigation revealed that the Leopold family car, which Leopold and Loeb supposedly used the day of the murder, had not left the garage; this information was corroborated by the family chauffeur.

Loeb panicked and confessed, forcing Leopold to do the same. They admitted that they had killed the boy for the excitement of committing a crime.

The case against Leopold and Loeb was airtight. The confessions were authentic, and further evidence was elicited from the two men. The families of the killers appealed to prominent lawyer Clarence Darrow to defend the accused murderers.

Darrow opposed the idea at first, but felt that Leopold and Loeb would be convicted more on an emotional level than on legal expertise. Darrow knew they were guilty but agreed to attempt to secure a sentence other than the applicable death penalty.

The case came to court on July 21, 1924. Darrow requested that the case be decided solely by a judge, without a jury. Judge John R. Caverly consented.

Leopold and Loeb pleaded guilty. They had been examined by psychiatrists and declared legally sane. Darrow decided that since he could not argue that they were insane, he would try to prove that the two men were mentally diseased, which would not excuse their guilt but could be a mitigating factor in their sentencing. Darrow appealed to the mercy of the court in deciding the punishment for Leopold and Loeb.

The judge deliberated for ten days before rendering his decision. Leopold and Loeb were spared the death sentence and received sentences of life imprisonment.

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