Today in 1924: Leopold and Loeb spared the death penalty

September 10, 2010

Today in Legal HistoryOn this day in 1924, one of the most widely followed trials of the 20th century came to a close, two weeks after legendary trial attorney Clarence Darrow spent an entire day pleading for the lives of two confessed teenage murderers while a mob called for their executions.

Richard Loeb, 18, and Nathan Leopold, 19, were exceptionally intelligent; both had already completed college and were planning to attend law school. Together, they hatched a scheme to kidnap, ransom and murder a 14-year-old acquaintance from their wealthy Chicago neighborhood, for no other purpose than the thrill of getting away with “the perfect crime.”

If you’ve ever seen Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope” – whose two main characters, Phillip and Brandon, are based on Leopold and Loeb – then you can guess what happened next: By tugging on a few loose threads, police detectives soon unraveled the would-be perfect crime. Under police questioning, both confessed their involvement in the kidnapping and murder, although each pointed the finger at the other for the actual killing.

After the boys’ families hired Clarence Darrow to defend their sons, many expected him to mount an insanity defense. However, the attorney recognized that the state’s case was solid, and the public was in no mood for mercy. Darrow thought the boys had a better shot at averting the death penalty before a judge than before a jury, so he had them change their pleas from “not guilty” to “guilty.”

The trial – now technically a sentencing hearing – lasted a month, with testimony from dozens of witnesses and experts. The proceeding culminated in a lengthy closing speech in which Darrow delivered what many regard as the most passionate and persuasive argument against the death penalty ever heard in a courtroom.

Clarence Darrow, at the trial of Leopold and Loeb (seated)“Your Honor stands between the past and the future,” Darrow said near the end of his closing. “You may hang these boys; you may hang them by the neck until they are dead. But in doing it you will turn your face toward the past. In doing it you are making it harder for every other boy who in ignorance and darkness must grope his way through the mazes which only childhood knows. … I am pleading for the future; I am pleading for a time when hatred and cruelty will not control the hearts of men. When we can learn by reason and judgement and understanding and faith that all life is worth saving, and that mercy is the highest attribute of man.”

By the end of Darrow’s closing statement, many in the courtroom were in tears – including the judge. Two weeks later, Leopold and Loeb received life sentences.

For a complete account of the Leopold and Loeb trial and other famous trials from Socrates to Zacarias Moussauoi, see the excellent Famous Trials website, created and maintained by Professor Douglas Linder of the University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC) School of Law.