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social sciences

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Leopold, Nathan F. (1904-1971), and Richard A. Loeb (1905-1936)  
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While in jail, Leopold and Loeb seemed to revel in their notoriety. They spoke freely to newspaper reporters, providing them with lurid details about the crime (though not about the nature of their relationship). They also freely cooperated with the police, gladly reenacting the crime and helping detectives locate evidence that could be used against them.

In was in this context of sensational newspaper reports and freely talking suspects that Clarence Darrow agreed to accept the case on behalf of the families of Leopold and Loeb. Loeb's uncle begged the famous lawyer, "Get them a life sentence instead of death. That's all we ask." Allegedly offered $1,000,000 to defend them, Darrow accepted the case not primarily for the fee, but because it offered an opportunity to combat the death penalty, one of his passionate causes.

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The first thing Darrow had to do was to convince his young clients to refuse to speak with the press or to the police.

The Trial

The trial, which began on July 21, 1924, was presided over by John R. Caverly, Chief Justice of the Circuit Court of Cook County. Judge Caverly was well known for his solicitude for youthful offenders, a fact that Darrow no doubt factored into his defense strategy.

The trial began with a startling declaration by Darrow. Whereas everyone assumed that he would plead his clients not guilty by reason of insanity, instead he pled them guilty, adding: "We want to state frankly here that no one in this case believes that these defendants should be released or are competent to be. We believe that they should be permanently isolated from society."

Darrow's goal was not to exonerate his clients, which he knew was impossible, but to save their lives. By pleading guilty, Leopold and Loeb could avoid a jury trial, and Darrow believed he had a better chance of convincing a judge to spare their lives than he did of convincing a jury.

The trial opened with the prosecution, led by State's Attorney Crowe, presenting every detail of the crime, emphasizing its cold-bloodedness and cruelty, hoping to convince the Judge that the defendants deserved no mercy. Darrow cross-examined few of the factual witnesses.

The prosecution's most vulnerable theory was that the defendants were motivated by the need to pay gambling debts. While it was not necessary for the prosecution to prove motive in a case in which the defendants had pled guilty, the question was important in terms of mitigation of the sentence, and Darrow was able to debunk the idea that the children of wealthy and indulgent parents needed a $10,000 ransom in order to pay negligible debts.

The next stage of the trial was in effect a battle of expert "alienists" (as psychiatrists were then known). Although Darrow was not utilizing the insanity defense, he wanted to use the testimony of alienists to help buttress his argument against the death penalty. When, over the strenuous objections of the State's Attorney, the Judge agreed to allow the testimony of the alienists hired by the defense, Darrow felt that he had won an important victory.

The alienists, who were more sympathetic to Leopold than to Loeb, saw the murder as the result of two abnormal personalities working together. Their testimony, which was filled with details of the defendants' sexual histories and fantasies, brought homosexuality to the fore. During this testimony, Judge Caverly barred women from the courtroom, indicating how sensitive the topic of homosexuality was in 1924.

Darrow's summation, on August 21, 1924, lasted for more than two hours. It is regarded as one of the finest pleas in American jurisprudence.

Darrow stressed the youth of the offenders, claiming that "never had there been a case in Chicago, where on a plea of guilty a boy under twenty-one had been sentenced to death." He argued that the murder was "a senseless, useless, purposeless, motiveless act of two boys." He denied that it was a "cold-blooded" murder, pointing out that it was not performed out of malice or hatred.

Darrow attributed the murder to the "immature and diseased" brains of two children involved in a "a weird, almost impossible relationship. Leopold, with his obsession of the superman, had repeatedly said that Loeb was his idea of the superman. He had the attitude toward him that one has to his most devoted friend, or that a man has to a lover. Without the combination of these two, nothing of this sort probably would have happened."

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