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Who are Leopold and Loeb?

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  • Written By: Niki Foster
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 19 November 2016
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Nathan Leopold, Jr. and Richard Loeb were the defendants in a notorious murder and kidnapping trial in 1924. Brilliant students at the University of Chicago, they attempted to stage "the perfect crime" by murdering 14-year-old Bobby Franks and attempting to collect ransom money. Leopold and Loeb were inspired to get away with murder by the writings of the German philosopher Nietzsche and his concept of the Superman. Clarence Darrow represented Leopold and Loeb in court, giving one of the finest speeches of his career arguing against capital punishment for the pair.

Leopold and Loeb first met at the University of Chicago when they were teenagers. Both were intelligent, advanced students, but Nathan Leopold was a genius with an IQ of 210. At the time of the murder, Leopold was 19 and studying law at the University of Chicago; Loeb, 18, planned to do the same after taking some courses at Harvard law school.

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Leopold and Loeb carefully planned their crime over a few months. Before the kidnapping and murder plan was underway, the pair had successfully committed other, less serious crimes such as petty larceny. Leopold and Loeb's motive for the murder was simply to get away with it, to prove their intellectual superiority by pulling off the perfect crime. They planned to kidnap a boy and collect ransom money without being caught; murdering the victim was essential to prevent the kidnappers from being identified. They chose Richard Loeb's neighbor and family friend as the victim, since they could easily get him to enter the car.

Despite careful planning, the pair made some mistakes that led to their arrest. Bobby Franks' body was found before the ransom could be collected. Nathan Leopold left his eyeglasses at the crime scene. They had a rare hinge mechanism, and only three pairs of such glasses had been purchased in the Chicago area. The pair's alibi involved taking some girls for a drive the night of the murder. It fell apart when it was discovered that that Leopold's car was being repaired that evening.

Clarence Darrow took the boys' case and advised them to plead guilty instead of not guilty by reason of insanity. This strategy allowed them to avoid a jury trial. Darrow, a staunch opponent of capital punishment, argued the murderers' case before a single judge, criticizing a penal system that would condemn disturbed young men to death rather than attempting to rehabilitate them. His plea was successful, and Leopold and Loeb were both sentenced to life in prison plus 99 years.

Leopold and Loeb served their sentence at Joliet prison, where they used their education to teach classes. Richard Loeb was killed in 1936 by a fellow inmate. The killing was ruled self-defense according to the man's claim that Loeb had sexually assaulted him. Leopold continued his studies, mastering 27 languages while incarcerated.

In 1958, Nathan Leopold was released on parole. He moved to Puerto Rico, where he married a widow. After prison, Leopold wrote an autobiography and continued the ornithological studies he had begun in his youth before the trial. Leopold died of cardiac arrest at the age of 66 on 30 August 1971. The Leopold and Loeb case inspired a number of fictional works, notably Alfred Hitchcock's Rope and Michael Haneke's Funny Games.

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