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Leopold and Loeb: The Judge's Decision
Digital History ID 1115


Annotation: It was the first "Crime of the Century." It took place in 1924. Two teenagers with every social advantage kidnapped and killed and mutilated a 14-year old neighbor.

Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb came from highly privileged Chicago families. At 19, Leopold was already a University of Chicago graduate and spoke 14 languages. 18-year-old Richard was the youngest graduate in the history of the University of Michigan. Leopold would describe the two as evil geniuses who were above ordinary standards of morality.

Theirs was a thrill killing, which included various sexual perversions with their victim's body. They even mutilated the boy's genitals with acid. And yet they were not executed. Their defender, the attorney Clarence Darrow, introduced the psychiatric defense into the legal system. He claimed that the youths had been sexually abused by their governess and scarred by feelings of physical inferiority. He maintained that Leopold had been traumatized by his mother's death and that Loeb had been pushed into extreme academic overachievement. In addition, Leopold and Loeb had indulged in extreme sexual fantasies.

Before the 1920s, the dominant view of violent juveniles emphasized deficiency and deprivation. Juvenile killers were generally thought of as subnormal in intelligence. The conventional view is that delinquents had been neglected by their families and deprived of education. But the Leopold and Loeb case challenged that view. The case was interpreted to mean that any parent could have raised these two youthful murderers. Said a prominent judge:

Let no parent flatter himself that the Leopold-Loeb case has no lesson for him....It is more than the story of a murder. It is the story of modern youth, of modern parents, of modern economic and social conditions, and of modern education.

Rather than blaming the young men's parents, the judge and the press accepted Clarence Darrow's argument that society, schools, and violent social conditions were largely to blame for the crime. Darrow also succeeded in putting the morality of the death penalty on trial. He acknowledged his clients' guilt and admonished the audience to hate the sin but not the sinner. He succeeded in persuading the judge to give the two murderers life sentences.

Document: In view of the profound and unusual interest that this case has aroused not only in this community but in the entire country and even beyond its boundaries, the court feels it his duty to state the reasons which have led him to the determination he has reached.

It is not an uncommon thing that pleas of guilty are entered in criminal cases, but almost without exception in the past such pleas have been the result of a virtual agreement between the defendants and the State's Attorney whereby in consideration of the plea the State's Attorney consents to recommend to the court a sentence deemed appropriate by him, and in the absence of special reasons to the contrary, it is the practice of the court to follow such recommendations.

In the present case the situation is a different one. A plea of guilty has been entered by the defense without a previous understanding with the prosecution and without any knowledge whatever on its part. Moreover, the plea of guilty did not in this particular case, as it usually does, render the task of the prosecution easier by substituting the admission of guilt for a possibly difficult and uncertain chain of proof. Here the State was in possession not only of the essential substantiating fact, but also of voluntary confessions on the part of the defendants. The plea of guilty, therefore, does not make a special case in favor of the defendant. Since both the cases--that, namely, of murder and that of kidnapping for ransom--were of a character which invested the court with discretion as to the extent of the punishment, it became his duty under the statute to examine witnesses as to the aggravation and mitigation of the defense. This duty has been fully met. By consent of counsel for the State and for the defendants, the testimony in the murder case has been accepted as equally applicable to the case of kidnapping for ransom. In addition, a prima facie case was made out for the kidnapping case as well. The testimony introduced, both by the prosecution and the defense, has been as detailed and elaborate as though the case had been tried before a jury. It has been given the widest publicity and the public is so fully familiar with all its phases that it would serve no useful purpose to restate or analyze the evidence. By pleading guilty, the defendants have admitted legal responsibility for their acts; the testimony has satisfied the court that the case is not one in which it would have been possible to set up successfully the defense of insanity as insanity is defined and understood by the established law of this state for the purpose of the administration of criminal justice.

The court, however, feels impelled to dwell briefly on the mass of data produced as to the physical, mental, and moral condition of the two defendants. They have been shown in essential respects to be abnormal; had they been normal they would not have committed the crime. It is beyond the province of this court, as it is beyond the capacity of humankind in its present state of development to predicate ultimate responsibility for human acts.

At the same time, the court is willing to recognize that 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 is a valuable contribution to criminology. And yet the court feels strongly that similar analyses made of other persons accused of crime will probably reveal similar or different abnormalities. The value of such tests seems to lie in their applicability to crime and criminals in general.

Since they concern the broad question of human responsibility and legal punishment and are in no wise peculiar to the individual defendants, they may be deserving of legislative but not judicial consideration. For this reason the court is satisfied that his judgment in the present case cannot be affected thereby. The testimony in this case reveals a crime of singular atrocity. It is, in a sense, inexplicable, but is not thereby tendered less inhuman or repulsive. It was deliberately planned and prepared for during a considerable period of time. It was executed with every feature of callousness and cruelty. And here the court will say, not for the purpose of extenuating guilty, but merely with the object of dispelling a misapprehension that appears to have found lodgment in the public mind, that he is convinced by conclusive evidence that there was no abuse offered to the body of the victim. But it did not need that element to make the crime abhorrent to every instinct of human ability, and the court is satisfied that neither in the act itself, nor in its motives or lack of motives, or in the antecedents of the offenders, can he find any mitigating circumstances. For the crime of murder and of kidnapping for ransom the law prescribes different punishments in the alternatives. For the crime of murder the statute declares: "Whoever is guilty of murder shall suffer the punishment of death or imprisonment in the penitentiary for his natural life or for a term not less than fourteen years.

If the accused is found guilty by a jury they shall fix the punishment by their verdict; upon a plea of guilty, the punishment shall be fixed by the court." For the crime of kidnapping for ransom, the statute reads: "Whoever is guilty of kidnapping for ransom shall suffer death or be punished by imprisonment in the penitentiary for life, or for any term not less than five years." Under the pleas of guilty, the duty of determining the punishment devolves upon the court, and the law indicates no rule or policy for the guidance of his discretion. In reaching his decision the court would have welcomed the counsel and support of others. In some states the legislature, in its wisdom, has provided for a bench of three judges to determine the penalty in cases such as this. Nevertheless, the court is willing to meet his responsibilities. It would have been the task of least resistance to impose the extreme penalty of the law. In choosing imprisonment instead of death, the court is moved chiefly by the consideration of the age of the defendants, boys of eighteen and nineteen years.

It is not for the court to say that he will not, in any case, enforce capital punishment as an alternative, but the court believes 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. More than that, it seems to be in accordance with the precedents hitherto observed in this State. The records of Illinois show only two cases of minors who were put to death by legal which number the court does not feel inclined to make an addition.

Life imprisonment, at the moment, strikes the public imagination as forcibly as would death by hanging, but to the offenders, particularly of the type they are, the prolonged suffering of years of confinement may well be the severest form of retribution and expiation.

The court feels it proper to add a final word concerning the effect of the parole law upon the punishment of these defendants. In the case of such atrocious crimes, it is entirely within the discretion of the department of public welfare, never to admit these defendants to parole.

To such a policy the court urges them strictly to adhere; if this course is persevered in in the punishment of these defendants, it will both satisfy the ends of justice and safeguard the interests of society.

"In no. 33,623, indictment for murder, the sentence of the court is that you, Nathan F. Leopold, Jr., be confined in the penitentiary at Joliet for the term of your natural life. The court finds that your age is 19.

"In no. 33,623, indictment for murder, the sentence of the court is that you, Richard Loeb, be confined in the penitentiary at Joliet for the term of your natural life. The court finds that your age is 18.

"In 33,624, kidnapping for ransom, it is the sentence of the court that you, Nathan F. Leopold, Jr. be confined in the penitentiary at Joliet for the term of 99 years. The court finds your age at 19.

"In 33,624, kidnapping for ransom, the sentence of the court is that you, Richard Loeb, be confined in the penitentiary at Joliet for the term of 99 years."

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