Leopold and Loeb’s Criminal Minds

In defense of murderers Leopold and Loeb, attorney Clarence Darrow thwarted a nation’s call for vengeance

The Defendants
Nathan Leopold (left) and his lover Richard Loeb confessed that they had kidnapped and murdered Bobby Franks solely for the thrill of the experience. (Underwood & Underwood/ Corbis)
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It was a brilliant maneuver. By pleading them guilty, Darrow avoided a trial by jury. Caverly would now preside over a hearing to determine punishment—a punishment that might range from the death penalty to a minimum of 14 years in prison. Clearly it was preferable for Darrow to argue his case before a single judge than before 12 jurors susceptible to public opinion and Crowe's inflammatory rhetoric.

Darrow had turned the case on its head. He no longer needed to argue insanity in order to save Leopold and Loeb from the gallows. He now needed only to persuade the judge that they were mentally ill—a medical condition, not at all equivalent or comparable to insanity—to obtain a reduction in their sentence. And Darrow needed only a reduction from death by hanging to life in prison to win his case.

And so, during July and August 1924, the psychiatrists presented their evidence. William Alanson White, the president of the American Psychiatric Association, told the court that both Leopold and Loeb had experienced trauma at an early age at the hands of their governesses. Loeb had grown up under a disciplinary regimen so exacting that, in order to escape punishment, he had had no other recourse but to lie to his governess, and so, in White's account at least, he had been set on a path of criminality. "He considered himself the master criminal mind of the century," White testified, "controlling a large band of criminals, whom he directed; even at times he thought of himself as being so sick as to be confined to bed, but so brilliant and capable of mind...[that] the underworld came to him and sought his advice and asked for his direction." Leopold also had been traumatized, having been sexually intimate with his governess at an early age.

Other psychiatrists—William Healy, the author of The Individual Delinquent, and Bernard Glueck, professor of psychiatry at the New York Postgraduate School and Hospital—confirmed that both boys possessed a vivid fantasy life. Leopold pictured himself as a strong and powerful slave, favored by his sovereign to settle disputes in single-handed combat. Each fantasy interlocked with the other. Loeb, in translating his fantasy of being a criminal mastermind into reality, required an audience for his misdeeds and gladly recruited Leopold as a willing participant. Leopold needed to play the role of the slave to a powerful sovereign—and who, other than Loeb, was available to serve as Leopold's king?

Crowe had also recruited prominent psychiatrists for the prosecution. They included Hugh Patrick, president of the American Neurological Association; William Krohn and Harold Singer, authors of Insanity and the Law: A Treatise on Forensic Psychiatry; and Archibald Church, professor of mental diseases and medical jurisprudence at Northwestern University. All four testified that neither Leopold nor Loeb displayed any sign of mental derangement. They had examined both prisoners in the office of the state's attorney shortly after their arrest. "There was no defect of vision," Krohn testified, "no defect of hearing, no evidence of any defect of any of the sense paths or sense activities. There was no defect of the nerves leading from the brain as evidenced by gait or station or tremors."

Each set of psychiatrists—one for the state, the other for the defense—contradicted the other. Few observers noticed that each side spoke for a different branch of psychiatry and was, therefore, separately justified in reaching its verdict. The expert witnesses for the state, all neurologists, had found no evidence that any organic trauma or infection might have damaged either the cerebral cortex or the central nervous system of the defendants. The conclusion reached by the psychiatrists for the prosecution was, therefore, a correct one—there was no mental disease.

The psychiatrists for the defense—White, Glueck and Healy—could assert, with equal justification, that, according to their understanding of psychiatry, an understanding informed by psychoanalysis, the defendants had suffered mental trauma during childhood that had damaged each boy's ability to function competently. The result was compensatory fantasies that had led directly to the murder.

Most commentators, however, were oblivious to the epistemological gulf that separated neurology from psychoanalytic psychiatry. The expert witnesses all claimed to be psychiatrists, after all; and it was, everyone agreed, a dark day for psychiatry when leading representatives of the profession could stand up in court and contradict each other. If men of national reputation and eminence could not agree on a common diagnosis, then could any value be attached to a psychiatric judgment? Or perhaps each group of experts was saying only what the lawyers required them to say—for a fee, of course.

It was an evil that contaminated the entire profession, thundered the New York Times, in an editorial similar to dozens of others during the trial. The experts in the hearing were "of equal authority as alienists and psychiatrists," apparently in possession of the same set of facts, who, nevertheless, gave out "opinions exactly opposite and contradictory as to the past and present condition of the two prisoners.... Instead of seeking truth for its own sake and with no preference as to what it turns out to be, they are supporting, and are expected to support, a predetermined purpose....That the presiding Judge," the editorial writer concluded sorrowfully, "is getting any help from those men toward the forming of his decision hardly is to be believed."

At 9:30 on the morning of September 10, 1924, Caverly prepared to sentence the prisoners. The final day of the hearing was to be broadcast live over station WGN, and throughout the city, groups of Chicagoans clustered around radio sets to listen. The metropolis had paused in its morning bustle to hear the verdict.

Caverly's statement was brief. In determining punishment, he gave no weight to the guilty plea. Normally a guilty plea could mitigate punishment if it saved the prosecution the time and trouble of demonstrating culpability; but that had not been the case on this occasion.

The psychiatric evidence also could not be considered in mitigation. The defendants, Caverly stated, "have been shown in essential respects to be abnormal....The careful analysis made of the life history of the defendants and of their present mental, emotional and ethical condition has been of extreme interest....And yet the court feels strongly that similar analyses made of other persons accused of crime would probably reveal similar or different abnormalities....For this reason the court is satisfied that his judgment in the present case cannot be affected thereby."

Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb had been 19 and 18 years old, respectively, at the time of the murder. Did their youth mitigate the punishment? The prosecuting attorneys, in their concluding statements to the court, had emphasized that many murderers of similar age had been executed in Cook County; and none had planned their deeds with as much deliberation and forethought as Leopold and Loeb. It would be outrageous, Crowe had argued, for the prisoners to escape the death penalty when others—some even younger than 18—had been hanged.

Yet, Caverly decided he would hold back from imposing the extreme penalty on account of the age of the defendants. He sentenced each defendant to 99 years for the kidnapping and life in prison for the murder. "The court believes," Caverly stated, "that it is within his province to decline to impose the sentence of death on persons who are not of full age. This determination appears to be in accordance with the progress of criminal law all over the world and with the dictates of enlightened humanity."

The verdict was a victory for the defense, a defeat for the state. The guards allowed Leopold and Loeb to shake Darrow's hand before escorting the prisoners back to their cells. Two dozen reporters crowded around the defense table to hear Darrow's response to the verdict and, even in his moment of victory, Darrow was careful not to seem too triumphal: "Well, it's just what we asked for but...it's pretty tough." He pushed back a lock of hair that had fallen over his forehead, "It was more of a punishment than death would have been."


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