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Sunday, March 01, 2015

For the Thrill of It: Leopold, Loeb, and the Murder That Shocked Chicago by Simon Baatz | LibraryThing

I suppose that anyone who has read about the career of Clarence Darrow is familiar with his famous defense of Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold. In short, a little Jewish boy (Richard’s cousin!) from a wealthy Chicago family, Bobby Franks, was kidnapped after school and murdered by two intelligent and wealthy college students, both also Jewish. Suspicion initially fell on teachers at the school Bobby attended, the Harvard School, and despite lots of exculpatory evidence several of them were held by the police and beaten severely to try to get them to confess.  They didn’t and finally their lawyers convinced a judge to release them

Then there was an eyewitness who saw a gray Winton car right by the school at the time Bobby was kidnapped. Soon every person in Chicago with a gray Winton was being reported to the police.  One owner parked his car in the garage and walked to work rather than having to face the police almost every day as people reported seeing him in his gray Winton.  (The car they actually used was a dark green Willys-Knight.)

Pedophiles, homosexuals, anyone the police considered a “sexual deviant” were rounded up for questioning, although even the district attorney noted that it would be a rare event indeed for a pedophile to ask for a ransom and set up such an elaborate mechanism to collect it.

The story is horrifying in its depiction of the two psychopaths.  Convinced they were smarter than everyone else (Richard was the youngest graduate of the University of Michigan,) they had successfully embarked on a series of petty vandalism before deciding to commit the “perfect murder.”  They almost succeeded, except for Nathan’s glasses.

There was no question as to their guilt.  They had confessed and revealed all the details to the police. They were perhaps lucky that they committed their crimes at a time when research in genetics and animal instinct was being popularized. Darrow, who had engaged in a “lifelong campaign on behalf of the defenseless” had read Altgeld’s book, Our Penal Machinery, which argued that “criminal behavior... was less a consequence of free will and deliberation and more a matter of education, upbringing, and environment. The majority of criminals—the overwhelming majority, Altgeld stressed—had grown up in circumstances of dire poverty, in families where one or both parents were absent, and without the benefits of education, schooling, or discipline.”   

Darrow was also determined to rid society of capital punishment. He had defended numerous people who faced the death penalty.   The Loeb/Leopold case was perfect  “not because the defendants were deserving...  the trial of Leopold and Loeb would capture the attention of the nation. … "The importance of instinct in the animal world, Darrow stated, provided a clue to its significance in higher forms of life. Human beings believe that they act rationally, but might they not also be subject to instinctual drives? …”human beings were no more capable of free agency than the mason bee or the red ant."

The trial provided a forum for the relatively new field of psychiatry (even then occasionally called “alienists”)  that wanted to impress upon the rapt audience their “belief that criminal behavior was a medical phenomenon best interpreted by scientific experts.”   That is, if they could avoid an adversarial battle between experts (each getting $1,000 a day - a huge amount of money in those days,) which would require the cooperation of the state’s attorney.  The facts might not be at issue but the interpretations could very well be, and that would be embarrassing to the new profession.  Darrow countered with the argument that no one wanted to see the boys freed by claiming insanity; they were trying to avoid the death penalty.  Interestingly, efforts to broadcast the trial --a first -- were nixed after opposition from religious and social groups worried about their children being exposed to the filth (homosexuality) that would come out during testimony.

To explain Darrow’s brilliant strategy would be to reveal too much.  Excellent read for anyone interested in Darrow, criminal motivations, and the justice system not to mention early nineteenth century culture.

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