Ninety years ago this this week, Clarence Darrow gave a 12-hour summation in the sentencing hearing for Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold.
The case known as Leopold and Loeb was heralded as the “trial of the century.” The case was not really a trial at all. Darrow had changed the young men’s pleas from not guilty to guilty and focused his efforts on preventing a death sentence.
On May 21, 1924, Leopold and Loeb rented a car and stocked it with tools to commit the “perfect crime.” Then they drove to a park near a local prep school to wait for the perfect victim. They found Bobby Franks.
The two wealthy University of Chicago students lured the 14-year-old Franks into the car. The two men murdered Franks for the thrill of the kill.
The next morning, a man on his way to work found Frank’s naked body, his face and genitals burned with acid, in a culvert in an isolated field outside of Chicago.
Darrow’s change of plea had turned the case on its head. Darrow, a graduate of Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania, needed only a reduction from death by hanging to life in prison to win the case.
Darrow’s summation has been characterized as one of the greatest orations ever presented in opposition to the death penalty.
Darrow asked the judge, “Why did they kill little Bobby Franks? Not for money, not for spite; not for hate. They killed him as they might kill a spider or a fly, for the experience. They killed him because they were made that way.”
Darrow pleaded, "If the state in which I live is not kinder, more humane, and more considerate than the mad act of these two boys, I am sorry I have lived so long."
He concluded “Your Honor, what excuse could you possibly have for putting these boys to death? You would have to turn your back on every precedent of the past. You would have to turn your back on the progress of the world. You would have to ignore all human sentiment and feeling …You would have to do all this if you would hang boys of eighteen and nineteen years of age who have come into this court and thrown themselves upon your mercy.”
Cook County Circuit Court Judge John R. Caverly was impressed. He imposed a sentence of life in prison for both men.
(Image: Nathan Leopold, 19, far right, and Richard Loeb, 18, second from right, are seen during their arraignment in a Cook County courtroom with attorney Clarence Darrow, left, in July 1924. The two teenagers were convicted and sentenced to serve life plus 99 years for the murder-kidnapping of Bobby Franks in May 1924. AP Photo)
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George, P.C. He is the former district attorney of Lawrence County and just completed a six year term on the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole. His weekly column on crime and punishment is syndicated by GateHouse New Service. You can read his musings on the criminal justice system at www.mattmangino.com and follow Matt on Twitter @MatthewTMangino. His new book The Executioner’s Toll, 2010: The Crimes, Arrests, Trials, Appeals, Last Meals, Final Words and Executions of 46 Persons in the United States is now available from McFarland & Company publishers.