Thursday, February 11, 2016

American Experience: “The Perfect Crime” (PBS-TV, aired February 9, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last Tuesday PBS did an American Experience program on what they called “The Perfect Crime,” which in practice turned out to be anything but: the 1924 murder of 14-year-old Bobby Franks in Chicago by two 19-year-old boys from well-to-do and prominent Jewish families, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. The case became a sensation because Loeb and Leopold were Gay lovers (though Loeb was apparently Bisexual and had agreed to have sex with Leopold if in turn Leopold would join him in his crime schemes), precociously intelligent students at the University of Chicago, and devotees of the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. Indeed, they supposedly considered themselves Nietzschean “supermen,” “beyond good and evil” (as the title of one of Nietzsche’s books had it), and though the show didn’t mention this, their attorney, the legendary Clarence Darrow, declared as part of his closing argument in the case that Nietzsche’s philosophy had driven crazy everyone who believed in it, starting with Nietzsche himself. They had planned the crime for months but had left the choice of a victim to sheer happenstance (though Franks was Leopold’s second cousin and — especially in a more trusting age generally in which people did not feel compelled to lock their doors behind them when they went out — that probably made it easier for Leopold and Loeb to lure Franks into their car in order to kill him). They hoped that they could collect a ransom from Franks’ family before the Frankses learned their son was dead, and they also believed they were so intellectually brilliant they could commit the “perfect crime” and the police would never suspect them.

As things turned out, the crime they did commit was so inept the police were onto them literally within hours — Leopold dropped his glasses at the dump site where they left Franks’ body, the police showed the glasses to Franks’ parents, the parents assured the cops that those were not their son’s glasses, and since the glasses had an unusual hinge and only three pair like them had been sold in the Chicago area, the trail led them straight to Leopold and then to Loeb. The cops arrested and interrogated both of them — and of course each tried to rat out the other, just like less intellectually pretentious and decidedly non-super criminals would have. The case fell to state’s attorney Robert Crowe, who had been elected by pledging to rid Chicago of the Prohibition-era gangsters that were famously turning the city into a virtually law-free zone (the original gangster movies of the late 1920’s and early 1930’s were written by former Chicago newspaper reporters — Bartlett Cormack, Herman J. Mankiewicz, Ben Hecht — who had gained their knowledge covering the real-life gangsters for the Chicago papers) but who saw the Leopold and Loeb case as a career-maker that would get his name before Illinois voters and win him the state governorship. The Leopold and Loeb families hired Clarence Darrow, promising him a big fee (which they stiffed him on, an aspect of the case not mentioned in this show) and also a chance to have a public forum with which to plead his opposition to capital punishment. At the time that wasn’t as far-out an opinion as it became later — in the 1920’s several states, including Nebraska, had already abolished the death penalty, and Darrow was hoping a successful defense of Leopold and Loeb (“successful” in terms of getting them life imprisonment instead of the death penalty) would enable him to lead a movement to abolish capital punishment nationwide.

The prosecution anticipated that Darrow would plead Leopold and Loeb “not guilty by reason of insanity,” so they hired their own “alienists” (as psychiatrists and psychologists were called in 1924) to examine Leopold and Loeb and determine that they were sane within the literal meaning of the law, which in most states was governed by a 19th century case called M’Naghten that held that you were legally sane if you knew the difference between right and wrong — and even if your verbal statements seemed like you didn’t, taking normal steps to avoid being caught (like fleeing or hiding out) could be used as proof that you were conscious that you had committed a crime and therefore you knew what you had done was wrong. Darrow stunned them on the eve of the trial by changing the boys’ plea to guilty, mainly because while in most states today the sentence in a capital crime is decided by a jury (usually the same one that decided the defendant’s guilt — they actually call it the “guilt phase” and the “penalty phase” of the trial), but in Illinois in 1924 meant that the case’s judge, John Caverly, would alone make the decision whether Leopold and Loeb hanged or survived in prison. Darrow put the boys through a battery of tests ranging from physical function to mental state, trying to argue that even if they met the M’Naghten definition of legal sanity, there was enough doubt about their mental state that they should not be executed. (The show included a marvelous cartoon from the front page of an Illinois newspaper in 1924 ridiculing the examinations and the arguments Darrow was making based on them, suggesting that if the science he was presenting in court were true, everyone was at least a little crazy — little did whoever drew that cartoon know that within two or three decades the theories of Sigmund Freud, on which Darrow was basing much of his case, would become a national craze and people would take seriously the arguments the cartoonist was ridiculing!) Fortunately for his case, Darrow also pointed out that the defendants were only 19 years old and therefore their brains hadn’t quite finished forming — and that the youngest person who’d been executed on a guilty plea in Illinois before that was 23. That was the argument that swayed Judge Caverly; he threw out all the scientific testimony on both sides but wrote in his decision that he was not inclined to put two teenagers to death no matter how heinous their actions. It wasn’t the big win against the whole concept of capital punishment Darrow was hoping for — and, as I noted above, it wasn’t the big payday Darrow was hoping for either (he was still squabbling with the Leopold and Loeb families for months afterwards, and gave up on collecting the fee they’d promised him only in 1925, when he got his next big case — the Scopes “monkey trial” over a Tennessee state law forbidding the teaching of evolution) — but it was a win.

Of course, the show also mentioned the all-too-typical comments from many defenders of old-time morality that the looser social ethics of the 1920’s had made the crime possible — one writer even said that it was all the fault of the Jazz Age: we’d had jazz music, we’d had jazz flowers (just what are “jazz flowers,” anyway?) and now there was a “jazz murder.” The show was only an hour, which offered the filmmakers little chance for any insights into What Made Richard and Nathan Run — though in some ways the photos of them from the time said it all: Loeb was drop-dead gorgeous (if he’d gone out to Hollywood he’d have had an excellent chance at silent-movie stardom) while Leopold (whose glasses, after all, were the crucial clue that got them caught!), with his hooked nose, staring glance and pop eyes, was what today would be called a “nerd.” There’s also chilling footage of a press conference Nathan Leopold gave when he was finally released from prison on parole in 1958; a good deal older and weighted down both by his crime and the 34 years he’d spent in custody for it, he nonetheless came off looking like a 1950’s intellectual as he pleaded with the media people covering the event to be left alone for the rest of his life (he pretty much was; he died quietly in 1971, 13 years later), while Loeb had long since died — killed in 1936 by a fellow prisoner who claimed Loeb had made unwanted sexual advances to him. At the time the whole idea that people who had grown up with all the advantages Leopold and Loeb had would turn into stone-cold killers was a relative novelty; today the upper-class psychopath is such a staple of crime fiction (from the Hannibal Lecter stories and American Psycho to a large number of the scripts on shows like Law and Order: Special Victims Unit) it’s become as much a cliché as the street kid who grows up to be a bigshot gangster only to be eliminated by his rivals, the sort of crime fiction all those ex-reporters from Chicago who’d gone to Hollywood to be screenwriters ran into the ground over the next decade and a half!