Closing Argument in the Leopold and Loeb Trial
Published in 1924
In the late spring of 1924 the nation was shocked by the news of a kidnapping and murder in Chicago, Illinois. Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, two nineteen-year-olds from wealthy families, had confessed to the brutal killing of fourteen-year-old Bobby Franks. The young men had shown no remorse, admitting that they had plotted for some time to commit the perfect crime. Their plan was spoiled when Leopold left his eyeglasses at the scene, which eventually led to their arrest. The public expressed outrage at the crime, with many declaring that the killers, popularly characterized as "spoiled brats," deserved the death penalty.
Hoping to spare their children from such a fate, the families of Leopold and Loeb hired the famous lawyer Clarence Darrow (1857–1938) to defend them. A Chicago attorney in his late sixties, Darrow had earned a reputation as a champion of the underdog through his defense of union leaders, antiwar activists, and others. He was also a strong opponent of capital punishment (the death penalty) and had already saved more than one hundred clients from execution.
Through interviews with Leopold and Loeb, Darrow concluded that the young men did not know the difference between right and wrong. But he did not want to pursue an insanity plea (that is, one based on the idea that the defendants were innocent because they had not known what they were doing), because that would force a jury trial. Darrow knew that public sentiment was against the young men, and that a jury would be likely to condemn them to death. Instead, he directed his clients to enter a guilty plea, which meant that a judge would determine their fate. Darrow planned to appeal to the judge to spare the young men's lives based on their youth and their deranged personalities.
The trial began in July, with Darrow arguing his case before Chief Justice John Caverly. Darrow produced three psychiatrists as expert witnesses who testified that, as Darrow stated as quoted in Nathan Miller's New World Coming: The 1920s and the Making of Modern America, the crime had been "the act of immature and diseased brains." In a powerful but lengthy closing statement, which lasted twelve hours and stretched out over two days, Darrow made no attempt to downplay the horror of the crime or his clients' guilt. Instead, he asked for mercy on the grounds of the young men's age, their mental condition, and the general inhumanity of capital punishment. In the last part of the statement, excerpted here, Darrow calls on Judge Caverly to look toward the future, when, he suggests, the execution of criminals will be viewed as a brutal practice of the past.
Things to remember while reading this excerpt from Darrow's closing argument …
The case of Leopold and Loeb was one of several that were popularly labeled "crimes of the century." Newspapers as well as the new medium of radio both helped to inform the public and to sensationalize (make exciting, often at the expense of accuracy, in order to attract public attention) the crime and the trial. Some observers saw this seemingly irrational crime as evidence of the moral breakdown of traditional U.S. society and as a sign of more senseless violence to come.
Part of the public's shock over the case was due to the background of the people involved. Leopold and Loeb were not only wealthy (as was their victim) but also intelligent young men, both had scored high on IQ tests and graduated from high school early, with promising futures. They were both graduate students at the University of Chicago, and Leopold was set to attend Harvard Law School in the fall. They had planned and executed the murder with precision and emotional detachment. As quoted in Miller's book, Leopold later said that he had felt nothing more than an entomologist (a scientist who studies insects) would when "impaling a butterfly on a pin."
Darrow's appearance in the courtroom was not particularly impressive. A tall man with a slouching posture, his face was craggy and tired-looking and his clothing rumpled. But Darrow's passionate stance against the death penalty and his gift for public speaking made him a formidable force. It was rumored that his rich clients had paid Darrow $1,000,000, but in fact his fee was less than $100,000.
Excerpt from Darrow's closing argument
Now, I must say a word more and then I will leave this with you where I should have left it long ago. None of us are unmindful
I know your Honor stands between the future and the past. I know the future is with me, and what I stand for here; not merely for the lives of these two unfortunate lads, but for all boys and all girls; for all of the young, and as far as possible, for all of the old. I am pleading for life, understanding, charity, kindness, and the infinite mercy that considers all. I am pleading that we overcome cruelty with kindness and hatred with love. I know the future is on my side. Your Honor stands between the past and the future. 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. In doing it you will make it harder for unborn children. You may save them and make it easier for every child that some time may stand where these boys stand. You will make it easier for every human being with an aspiration and a vision and a hope and a fate. 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.
I feel that I should apologize for the length of time I have taken. This case may not be as important as I think it is, and I am sure I do not need to tell this court, or to tell my friends that I would fight just as hard for the poor as for the rich. If I should succeed in saving these boys' lives and do nothing for the progress of the law, I should feel sad, indeed. If I can succeed, my greatest reward and my greatest hope will be that I have done something for the tens of thousands of other boys, for the countless unfortunates who must tread the same road in blind childhood that these poor boys have trod—that I have done something to help human understanding, to temper justice with mercy, to overcome hate with love. I was reading last night of the aspiration of the old Persian poet, Omar Khayyam. It appealed to me as the highest that I can vision. I wish it was in my heart, and I wish it was in the hearts of all:
"So I be written in the Book of Love
I do not care about that Book above.
Erase my name or write it as you will,
So I be written in the book of Love."
What happened next …
On September 10, 1924, Judge Caverly (who had received threats against both his own and his wife's life from people on both sides of the issue) announced his decision. Given the defendants' youth, the judge said, he had decided to sentence them to life in prison rather than execution.
After his involvement in one of the "crimes of the century," Darrow went on to participate in what would be called "the trial of the century." In 1925 he went to the small town of Dayton, Tennessee, to defend high school teacher John Scopes, who had been arrested for teaching the scientific theory of evolution to his students. In doing so Scopes had violated a recently enacted Tennessee law intended to uphold the traditional, Bible-based belief that God had created each species separately. Assisting the prosecution was William Jennings Bryan (1860–1925), a noted conservative politician and activist (see William Jennings Bryan's Undelivered Closing Statement from the Scopes Trial Primary Sources entry). During the trial, Darrow called Bryan to the stand to defend his literal interpretation of the Bible. Although Scopes was convicted, Darrow was credited with an intellectual victory. The next year, he successfully defended Henry Sweet, an African American charged with murder. The killing had occurred when Henry and his brother Ossian, who had moved into a white neighborhood, tried to defend Ossian's home against a hostile mob.
Darrow died in 1938. Meanwhile, Loeb was killed in a prison fight in 1936, while Leopold was paroled in 1958 and lived until 1971.
Did you know …
- When questioned about why they had committed the murder, Leopold and Loeb mentioned their interest in the ideas of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900). The young men claimed to see themselves as examples of Nietzsche's "superman," who is driven by a strong will to exert power over others and who is immune to all moral and social rules.
- During their years in prison, Leopold and Loeb remained friends and worked together to set up a school for inmates. In 1936 Loeb was killed by a prisoner who claimed that Loeb had made sexual advances toward him. Leopold was released after spending thirty-three years in prison. He went to live in Puerto Rico, where he became an ornithologist (bird expert) and published a book on the birds of his new home. He married in 1961 and died ten years later, insisting to the end of his life that it was Loeb who was primarily responsible for the murder of Bobby Franks.
Consider the following …
- Clarence Darrow was strongly opposed to capital punishment, even in the case of a criminal who confessed to a horrible murder. The case of Sacco and Vanzetti was very different from that of Leopold and Loeb, but it also involved the issue of the death penalty. Compare and contrast the two cases.
- Knowing the extent of the public outrage against his clients and wishing to avoid a jury trial, Darrow chose not to enter an insanity plea. If the trial took place today, do you think he would make the same decision? How much have people's ideas about the insanity defense changed or stayed the same? Research a recent court case to help you shape your thoughts.
For More Information
Driemen, John E. Clarence Darrow. New York: Chelsea House, 1992.
Hanson, Erica. The 1920s. San Diego, CA: Lucent Books, 1999.
Higdon, Hal. Crime of the Century: The Leopold & Loeb Case. New York: Putnam, 1975.
Larson, Edward J. Trial and Error: The American Controversy over Creation and Evolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Miller, Nathan. New World Coming: The 1920s and the Making of Modern America. New York: Scribner, 2003.
Tierney, Kevin. Darrow: A Biography. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1979.
Weinberg, Arthur, and Lila Weinberg. Clarence Darrow: A Sentimental Rebel. New York: Putnam, 1980.
"Famous American Trials: Illinois versus Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb." Famous Trials by Doug Linder. Available online at http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/leoploeb/l... . Accessed on June 20, 2005.