Judging Evil: Rethinking the Law of Murder and Manslaughter

By Samuel H. Pillsbury | Go to book overview
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3
Punishment as Defense of Value

In the spring of 1924, two young men in Chicago set out to commit the per-
fect crime. Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold resolved to kidnap and kill a
rich boy and then collect a ransom from his family.

For months the two had planned the crime. They rented a car under false
names and prepared a ransom letter to “Dear Sir.” On the afternoon of
Wednesday, May 24,1924, Leopold and Loeb drove by the private school Loeb
had earlier attended, looking for an appropriate victim—a boy they could eas-
ily entice into the car, whose father was rich enough to pay a hefty ransom.
Around five o'clock they spotted fourteen-year-old Bobby Franks and offered
him a ride. Franks got into the car, and the three drove off. While one of the
men drove, the other beat the boy on the head with a chisel, killing him. After
disposing of the body, Leopold and Loeb sent a letter to Bobby's father, de-
manding a $10,000 ransom for the boy. The ransom scheme was abandoned
the following day, when Bobby's naked body was discovered in a culvert by
some railroad tracks.

Both Leopold and Loeb came from wealthy Chicago families. Both had already demonstrated unusual intellectual ability. Loeb was only eighteen, but he had already obtained an undergraduate degree from the University of Chicago and was in his second year of law school. Nathan Leopold, nineteen, had also pursued an accelerated academic career. He had just obtained his college degree from the University of Chicago and expected to attend Harvard Law School the following year. Leopold spoke many languages and was an accomplished botanist.

Soon after the murder, acquaintances remembered seeing Leopold at a party, in a jubilant mood. He said that if he were to be struck by lightning and die he would not be sorry, “because I already have experienced everything that life has to offer.” On the Saturday night following the murder, Leopold and Loeb went to a nightclub with a University of Chicago classmate, Abel Brown. When Brown introduced Loeb to an acquaintance, Loeb shook the person's hand and said, “You've just enjoyed the treat of shaking hands with a murderer.” Everyone took it as a joke.

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