February 22, 2020

PBS revisits notorious Leopold and Loeb case in ‘The Perfect Crime’

It was a time of unease for middle-aged Middle Americans. They were worried about their sons and daughters — the weird music, the scanty clothing — and also about the way the super-rich were getting away with everything.

The headlines told of the strange case of teenagers, convicted killers, who got off easy through their lawyer’s novel defense that the boys were victims of affluent parents who hadn’t taught them right from wrong.

Sounds like today, but it was actually 1924, when two 19-year-olds, both from wealthy Jewish families in Chicago, committed a horrendous crime but cheated the hangman’s noose thanks to a novel defense by their famous lawyer.

The trial of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, which riveted the nation and the world, will be re-examined Feb. 9 when PBS airs “The Perfect Crime” as part of its “American Experience” series.

Both Leopold and Loeb, raised by governesses in the lap of luxury, came to visualize themselves as incarnations of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s Ubermensch — as supermen so brilliant and exceptional as to be bound by neither law nor morality.

The two became lovers, with the handsome and charismatic Loeb as the dominant partner. They initially tested their theory with petty crimes, but then, at 19, went for the big time.

They decided to commit the perfect crime, one they believed would never be traced to them, by picking up Bobby Franks — a second cousin of Loeb — in their car, first killing him with a chisel and pouring acid over his face and body to obscure distinguishing marks, then stuffing the corpse into a culvert.

The “perfect,” untraceable crime collapsed almost immediately. Franks’ body was discovered by a passerby, a pair of nearby glasses was traced to Leopold, and the murderers’ alibis quickly fell apart.

Both men confessed that they had committed the murder for the thrill of it, while Leopold compared his deed to an entomologist dissecting an insect for further study.

At the trial, the two defendants, elegantly dressed, were unrepentant, smiling and smirking. A death penalty seemed inevitable. At one point in the process, when the prosecution hinted that the defendants had sexually molested Franks before killing him, the judge, John Caverly, ordered all female reporters to leave the court room so as not to soil their delicate ears — even though the word “moron” or “sex moron” was frequently substituted for “homosexual” at the time.

Desperate, the parents of Leopold and Loeb hired Clarence Darrow, the country’s top criminal lawyer and an ardent opponent of the death penalty, to defend their sons and, specifically, to spare them from hanging.

With world attention focused on the case, Darrow pleaded his clients guilty to avoid a jury trial, thereby leaving the final verdict to the judge. He then proceeded to offer a groundbreaking psychological defense, arguing that his clients were not perpetrators but victims of stunted emotional growth, that Leopold had been sexually abused by his governess, and, for the first time, introducing Freudian concepts in an American trial.

Darrow called a string of psychiatrists (then called “alienists”) to the witness stand and 2,000 Chicagoans lined up hoping to hear Darrow’s final three-day summation.

Surprisingly, in an era of rampant anti-Semitism fueled by the KKK and Henry Ford, the defendants’ Jewishness, accompanied by their arrogance, was rarely mentioned in reports of the trial.

In a phone interview, Cathleen O’Connell, producer and director of the hourlong documentary, said that she and her staff spent much time checking coverage of the trial in the general and Jewish media and found hardly any allusions to the defendants’ ethnicity and religion.

However, she did come across one article in the Chicago Tribune quoting a Jewish “spokesman” as observing that Loeb and Leopold’s crime was due to their neglect of Judaism, O’Connell said.

One explanation may be that their victim, Franks, was Jewish himself, although his parents had converted to Christian Science.

What made O’Connell’s research most difficult, she said, was the absence of any newsreel coverage of the trial, and the judge, believing the testimony would be too salacious for the general public, aborted any radio broadcasts of the trial.

O’Connell contrasted this lack of firsthand material to the extensive coverage of the “Scopes Monkey Trial” one year later, in which Darrow defended a schoolteacher accused of violating Tennessee law by teaching evolution to his students. It was the first trial that allowed Americans to follow the proceedings by radio.

The documentary fills much of the gap through extensive use of still photos and by actors conveying the voices and personas of the main participants.

“The Perfect Crime” premieres at 9 p.m. Feb. 9 on KOCE, the PBS SoCal station.