“The Perfect Crime”
Leopold, Loeb, Morality and Capital Punishment
“The Perfect Crime” is a documentary about Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, two wealthy college students who murdered a 14-year-old boy in 1924 to prove they were smart enough to get away with it. Their trial, with famed defense attorney Clarence Darrow and Cook County Prosecutor Robert Crowe debated the death penalty and thousands of commentators weighed in from the sidelines setting off a national debate about morality and capital punishment.
When Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb 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. The sensational case unfolded during the summer of 1924. The question of motive would be turned over and over again, and 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.
The naked body of Bobby Franks was discovered in a drainage pipe in a remote area southeast of Chicago in the spring of 1924. Police had few clues. There was -only a pair of eyeglasses found near the body and a cruel ransom note sent to Frank’s parents after Bobby was already dead.
Investigators soon traced the glasses to 19-year old Nathan Leopold, a bookish and socially awkward birdwatcher who planned to apply to Harvard Law School. When questioned by police, Leopold said he had no knowledge of the crime. On the night of the murder he had been with his friend Richard Loeb. The police in turn questioned 18-year old Richard Loeb, the handsome son of a wealthy Sears and Roebuck vice president; he corroborated Leopold’s story.
However, it did not take long for investigators to find evidence discrediting the boys’ alibi and to match the lettering on the ransom note to Nathan Leopold’s typewriter. Ultimately, the boys admitted their guilt, and in a very strange turn of events, they took police on an eerie and macabre tour of Chicago, coldly describing how they planned and executed the murder step by step. They lured the boy into a car they had rented under an assumed name and bludgeoned him to death. This was all part of an elaborate scheme that the two had devised to get away with “the perfect crime”. Richard Loeb was a fan of true crime and pulp detective fiction. He came up with the plan and recruited Leopold to help. Nathan Leopold wanted more than just friendship from Richard naturally agreed to cooperate but only after Loeb consented to provide sexual favors in exchange for Nathan’s assistance. Their justification came from them declaring themselves Nietzschean supermen, superior beings who stood above the pedestrian morals of right and wrong.
Robert Crowe, the State’s Attorney in charge of prosecuting the case, immediately demanded the death penalty for the cold-blooded murders. Clarence Darrow, who had been hired by the families to defend Leopold and Loeb faced a nearly impossible task — to save the lives of two remorseless killers who had brazenly and publicly admitted their guilt. Darrow was a staunch opponent of capital punishment and saw the high-profile case as an opportunity to take a stand against what he saw as an inhumane and primitive punishment.
As preparations for the court case began, the boys’ seemingly unfathomable crime brought about a rash of national worry over the perils of modern life. Commentators worried that the Roaring Twenties had unleashed an amoral anarchism among America’s youth. From the pulpit, pastors condemned the “godless philosophy” of Nietzsche and preached about the turning away from religion that America was experiencing then. Even higher education shared the blame as a contributing factor to the moral decay and dangerous precociousness of juveniles like Leopold and Loeb.
As Darrow prepared his defense, he engaged the nation’s top psychologists and doctors, who examined Leopold and Loeb at length and determined they suffered from a plethora of ills and problems ranging from dysfunctional endocrine glands to psychological imbalances. Using the results of these tests, Darrow decided to use a bold courtroom strategy to save the boys’ lives. He changed their plea to guilty and this did away with the risky prospect of a jury trial and moved the court proceedings directly to the sentencing phase. Darrow then presented the medical and psychological reports he had gathered as mitigating circumstances, hoping the evidence would convince the judge to send the boys to prison rather than to death.
In an epic closing argument, Darrow’s closing argument went on for three days and he spoke extemporaneously and implored the judge to spare the boy’s lives and used the very public platform of the sensational court case to make an impassioned argument against the death penalty. Newspapers, which had been following the courtroom proceedings throughout the summer, published transcripts of Darrow’s closing argument word for word, and the eloquence of his plea reportedly brought many in the courtroom to tears including Richard Loeb.
After deliberating for over a week, the judge sentenced Leopold and Loeb to life, plus 99 years and cited their young ages as the determining factor in his ruling. Darrow had successfully kept his clients from the gallows and they were still defiant and unremorseful when they were sent to Joliet Prison to begin their terms.
The case would continue to fascinate the public for years to come — spawning books and movies including Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope” and “Strangers on a Train” and Myer Levin’s fictionalized account “Compulsion” and the movie with the same name (and there were others). Richard Loeb was killed in prison in 1936, murdered by a fellow inmate who claimed Loeb had made unwanted sexual advances on him.
It was a time of unease for middle-aged Middle Americans. They were worried about their sons and daughters and what were regarded as weird music and scanty clothing as well as the way the super-rich were getting away with everything.
The headlines told of the strange case of teenagers, convicted killers, who got off easy through their lawyer’s novel defense and that the boys were victims of affluent parents who hadn’t taught them right from wrong.
Sounds like today, but it was actually 1924, when two 19-year-olds, both from wealthy Jewish families in Chicago, committed a horrendous crime but avoided death thanks to a novel defense by their famous lawyer. Both Leopold and Loeb, raised by governesses in the lap of luxury, came to visualize themselves as incarnations of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s “Ubermenschen” and as supermen they were too brilliant and exceptional to be bound by neither law nor morality.
Bobby Franks was a second cousin of Loeb. They brought him into their car, first killing him with a chisel and pouring acid over his face and body to obscure distinguishing marks and then finally stuffing the corpse into a culvert. After confessing, Leopold compared his deed to an entomologist dissecting an insect for further study. At the trial, the two defendants, elegantly dressed, were unrepentant, smiling and smirking. The death penalty seemed inevitable and at one point in the trial when the prosecution hinted that the defendants had sexually molested Franks before killing him, the judge, John Caverly, ordered all female reporters to leave the court room so as not to soil their delicate ears even with the word “moron” or “sex moron” was frequently substituted for “homosexual” at the time.
Desperate, the parents of Leopold and Loeb hired Clarence Darrow, the country’s top criminal lawyer and an ardent opponent of the death penalty, to defend their sons and to spare them from hanging.Surprisingly, in an era of rampant anti-Semitism fueled by the Ku Klux Klan and Henry Ford, the defendants’ Jewishness, accompanied by their arrogance, was rarely mentioned in reports of the trial. Cathleen O’Connell, the producer and director of this documentary, has stated that she and her staff spent much time checking coverage of the trial in the general and Jewish media and found hardly any allusions to the defendants’ ethnicity and religion.
However, she did come across one article in the Chicago Tribune quoting a Jewish “spokesman” as observing that Loeb and Leopold’s crime was due to their neglect of Judaism. One explanation for this might be that their victim, was Jewish himself, even though his parents had converted to Christian Science. What made research difficult for the documentary was the absence of any newsreel coverage of the trial, and the judge, believing the testimony would be too salacious for the general public, aborted any radio broadcasts of the trial. Nathan Leopold was granted parole in 1958 and died in 1971.
I cannot help comparing this case to that of Ethan Couch in June, 2013. Couch, an inebriated 16-year-old Texan, was speeding and driving illegally on a restricted license when he slammed into a group of people standing on the side of the road. Four died; nine were injured, including two of Couch’s passengers, who were seriously hurt.
The case became a topic of national conversation because, despite the severity of his crime, he got off with a slap on the wrist thanks to a unique defense: “affluenza.” A psychologist testified that Couch didn’t understand the consequences of his actions because his parents taught him wealth buys privilege. Somehow, despite killing four people and testing positive for alcohol and drugs, he was sentenced to just rehab and probation. (Couch has again been in the news for fleeing the country; he was found in Puerto Vallarta Mexico with his mother and the two were partying. He’s currently at a juvenile facility in Texas.)
The very light sentence proved his parents correct in a way: wealth has its privileges, such as the ability to hire powerful lawyers who dream up creative defenses. The names Leopold and Loeb live on, but for most people, what they did has become part of history.
The film is part of the PBS American Experience series.