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“The Trial of the Century”

Lawrence Bush
September 18, 2017

Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb were spared their lives by the judge in their murder trial on this date in 1924. The teenage sons of wealthy Jewish families in Chicago, they had deliberately killed a 14-year-old boy, Bobby Franks, in order to prove themselves to be Nietzchean “supermen.” Once arrested, Leopold and Loeb spoke brazenly about their crime, and this, along with revelations about their wealth and their homosexuality, turned the trial into a national sensation. (During testimony about their sexuality, women were barred from the courtroom.) Their “Trial of the Century,” though it involved no sex crime, would link homosexuality and criminality in the public mind for decades after. Clarence Darrow, intent on challenging the death penalty, became Leopold and Loeb’s defense attorney. A guilty plea averted a jury trial, and Darrow’s eloquence achieved the rest, as he introduced the American public to the concept of “extenuating circumstances” and “mitigating factors” in capital murder cases. Loeb was murdered in 1938 by his prison cellmate, who claimed a “homosexual panic” defense and was exonerated. Leopold was paroled in 1958 and wrote an autobiography, Life Plus Ninety-Nine Years.

“Remorse did not come until later, much later. It did not begin to develop until I had been in prison for several years; it did not reach its full flood for perhaps ten years. Since then, for the past quarter century, remorse has been my constant companion. It is never out of my mind. Sometimes it overwhelms me completely, to the extent that I cannot think of anything else.”—Nathan Leopold

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.