Friday, May 29, 2009

This Day in Criminal Justice History (Net Tightens on Leopold & Loeb)

May 29, 1924—Eight days after their “thrill-killing” of a 14-year-old neighborhood boy, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb were interrogated separately about their alibis and away from prying newsmen. 

Forty-eight hours later, with a growing body of circumstantial evidence contradicting their stories and unraveling their attempt at the perfect crime, the two rich, intellectual Chicago youths  confessed to what was already dubbed “the crime of the century.”

The Leopold and Loeb case has served as dramatic fodder for several films and plays:

* Rope (1929 Patrick Hamilton play, 1948 Alfred Hitchcock film)—Hitchcock’s version was, as much as anything, a virtuosic experiment in camera use, consisting only of several long, continuous takes.
* Compulsion (1959 film, based on the Meyer Levin novel)—A roman a clef, the version that most people are most likely familiar with, with Bradford Dillman and Dean Stockwell as the killers and Orson Welles their attorney.
* Swoon (1992)—shot in black and white, this version viewed the case as an example of the public’s hysteria over Leopold and Loeb’s sexual orientation.
* Never the Sinner (1985)—a play by John Logan that attempted to show that Leopold and Loeb, far from being exceptional, were much closer to the mainstream than anyone could guess.

Leopold, who was freed 34 years after his guilty plea, was so sickened by his portrayal in Compulsion--particularly by the suggestion that he killed Frank out of sexual motives--that he sued the producers. 

In one of those Bleak House-style proceedings that so many in the legal profession love so much, the case took 11 years to wind through the courts—and when it was all over, Leopold’s case was dismissed.

Why did the murder grab the public’s attention so much? Why does it still have a hold on us?

The case, of course, completed the transformation of Clarence Darrow from attorney for the beleaguered and downtrodden (e.g., labor unions, radicals) to defender of the damned (the people that nobody, but nobody, wanted to be associated with). 

Though not the icon he has been made out to be for several decades (midway through his career, he barely escaped being convicted for attempting to suborn a juror), Darrow was in deadly earnest—and at his best—in passionately battling against the death penalty as he tried to save Leopold and Loeb.

But there were other reasons for the horror and rapt interest people have long felt about this case:

* It challenged traditional notions of what caused crime. Darrow had long contended that poverty bred criminal activity, and, in the wrenching transition to an industrialized, urban America, there were many reasons to believe so. But the parents of both killers in this case were affluent—Leopold, the son of a millionaire box manufacturer, and Loeb, the son of a retired Sears Roebuck vice president. The youths were privileged and smart, with Leopold even a law student at the University of Chicago.

* The murder demonstrated “motiveless malignity.” The phrase, coined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge about Iago in Othello, has come to stand in general for the mystery of evil. But this murder was not a crime of greed, passion or revenge. People could not believe that anybody could do something so heinous simply to get away with it.

* The relationship between the killers smacked of the taboo. Several years ago, I came across a book—published 25 years or so after the trial—that referred to Leopold and Loeb as having committed “unnatural acts” with each other. That last phrase hints at the less tolerant attitudes that existed in that pre-Stonewall era. Newspapers at the time left little doubt that the two were lovers—and speculated that young Frank had been molested before his murder, though the autopsy did not reveal this.

* The crime was, however, unusually gruesome. Leopold and Loeb killed Bobby Frank with a chisel, poured acid on him, and dumped his naked body in a culvert near Wolf Lake.

* The trial was the first time that forensic psychiatry was used in a court proceeding. After pleading the teenaged killers guilty, Darrow employed a novel strategy of calling on one “alienist” (or psychiatrist) after another to testify about their state of mind. (Ironically, when Judge John Caverly spared Leopold and Loeb from execution, his opinion hardly took account of all this testimony, instead citing their youth—leading Leopold to wonder if they could have simply submitted their birth certificates in lieu of all the evidence.)

What fascinates me about the case, however, are, at its core, its detective aspects—i.e., how the discovery of the body led to the identification of the killers.

Intelligent though they were, Leopold and Loeb were not the Nietzschean supermen they believed themselves to be. Several clues—mistakes of their own making—tripped them up, leading detectives to break them during interrogation:

* Leopold’s glasses. These small, horn-rimmed glasses belonged not to Bobby Frank but to someone else. At first, it seemed that the prescription was so common that it would be next to impossible to trace. But it turned out that the hinges had only been sold on three pairs of glasses in the Chicago area—and that one of these belonged to Leopold, who’d already been identified by a game warden around Wolf Lake as an avid ornithologist who frequently visited the area.

Leopold had a ready explanation at first—the glasses must simply have fallen out of his breast pocket while he was birding. But, when he was asked to demonstrate how this happened, the glasses stayed in his pocket. Then, after detectives asked him to lay his coat on the ground, they watched it immediately fall out, leading them to reason that this must have been the scenario when he removed his coat to avoid getting blood on him.

(Ironically, Leopold had, several weeks before, stopped wearing the glasses that led to his door. He'd been prescribed these after headaches began to bother him. Once this stopped, he no longer put them on, and had forgotten they were even in his pocket at the time of the crime.)

*The Underwood typewriter. The ransom letter sent to Bobby Frank’s father led at first to wrong suspects—a couple of teachers at the Harvard School, the prestigious prep school that Bobby attended, outside of which the abduction took place. Eventually, however, detectives figured out that the note had been written on an Underwood Portable—and Leopold’s maid informed them that she’d seen it in the house.

* The car. Leopold and Loeb claimed they had picked up two girls named “Mae” and “Edna” (impossible, of course, to trace) on the day of the murder, had dinner and dropped them off. (In fact, they had rented an auto the day of the crime, the better to disguise themselves as they carried out the thrill killing.) But the alibi came undone through someone who thought he was doing the boys a favor: the Leopold family chauffeur. Nathan couldn’t be the killer, he said, because Leopold’s own car was in the garage all day. This, of course, contradicted the boys’ statements that they had driven the Leopold family car.

With that, the detectives pressed harder and harder.

On the 31st, Leopold and Loeb had signed their confessions and entered the lore of American criminal psychosis.

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