Sunday, June 26, 2011

"one of the most eloquent attacks on the death penalty ever delivered in an American courtroom"

A tragedy of three young lost lives, a dead fourteen-year-old victim and the imprisonment of two teenage killers, unfolded in Chicago in 1924. The murder trial of Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold that shocked the nation is best remembered decades later for the twelve-hour long plea of Clarence Darrow to save his young clients from the gallows. His summation, rambling and disorganized as it was at times, stands as one of the most eloquent attacks on the death penalty ever delivered in an American courtroom. Mixing poetry and prose, science and emotion, a world-weary cynicism and a dedication to his cause, hatred of bloodlust and love of man, Darrow takes his audience on an oratorical ride that would be unimaginable in a criminal trial today. Even without Darrow in his prime, the Leopold and Loeb trial has the elements to justify its billing as the first "trial of the century." It is not surprising that the public responded to a trial that involved the kidnapping and murder of a young boy from one of Chicago's most prominent families, a bizarre relationship between two promising scholars-turned-murderers, what the prosecutor called an "act of Providence" leading to the apprehension of the teenage defendants, dueling psychiatrists, and an experienced and sharp-tongued state's attorney bent on hanging the confessed killers in spite of their relative youth.

The crime that captured national attention in 1924 began as a fantasy in the mind of eighteen-year old Richard Loeb, the handsome and privileged son of a retired Sears Roebuck vice president. (Interestingly, Barack Obama's home in Chicago's Kenwood neighborhood (5046 S. Greenwood) is only one block from Loeb's former home.) Loeb was obsessed with crime. Despite his intelligence and standing as the youngest graduate ever of the University of Michigan, Loeb read mostly detective stories. He read about crime, he planned crimes, and he committed crimes, although none until 1924 were crimes involving physical harm to a person. ( Darrow and Leopold later saw Loeb's fascination with crime as form of rebellion against the well-meaning, but strict and controlling, governess who raised him.) For Loeb, crime became a sort of game; he wanted to commit the perfect crime just to prove that it could be done.

Loeb's nineteen-year old partner in crime, Nathan Leopold, was interested in ornithology, philosophy, and especially, Richard Loeb. Like Loeb, Leopold was a child of wealth and opportunity, the son of a millionaire box manufacturer. At the time of their crime, Leopold was a law student at the University of Chicago and was planning to begin studies at Harvard Law School after a family trip to Europe in the summer. Leopold already had achieved recognition as the nation's leading authority on the Kirtland warbler, an endangered songbird, and frequently lectured on the subjects of his ornithological passion. As a student of philosophy, Leopold was attracted to Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche's influence on early twentieth century academics was powerful, and the merits of ideas contained in books like his Beyond Good and Evil were fiercely debated in centers of learning like the University of Chicago. Leopold agreed with Nietzsche's criticism of moral codes, and believed that legal obligations did not apply to those who approached "the superman." Leopold's idea of the superman was his friend and lover, Richard Loeb.

Loeb and Leopold had an intense and stormy relationship. At one time Leopold contemplated killing Loeb over a perceived breach of confidentiality. This relationship, described by Darrow as "weird and almost impossible," led the two boys to do together what they almost certainly would never have done apart: commit murder. Motives are often unclear, and they are in this trial. Neither the defense's theory that the murder was an effort by both to deepen their relationship nor the prosecution's theory that money to pay off gambling debts and a desire by Loeb to "have something" on Leopold in order to counter Leopold's unwanted demands for sex, are likely accurate. What is clearest about the motives is that Leopold's attraction to Loeb was his primary reason for participating in the crime. Leopold later wrote that "Loeb's friendship was necessary to me-- terribly necessary" and that his motive, "to the extent that I had one, was to please Dick." For Loeb, the crime was more an escape from the ordinary; an interesting intellectual exercise.

Murder was a necessary element in their plan to commit the perfect crime. The two teenagers spent months discussing and refining a plan that included kidnapping the child of a wealthy parents, demanding a ransom, and collecting the ransom after it was thrown off a moving train as it passed a designated point. Neither Loeb nor Leopold relished the idea of murdering their kidnap victim, but they thought it critical to minimizing their likelihood of being identified as the kidnappers.

Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb

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