Justice, privilege and media attention

In our age of omnipresent news coverage it might be tempting to think that media furors over salacious crimes are a contemporary creation. The fact of history suggest otherwise. Ninety years ago today, May 21, 1924, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, committed a brutal murder that drew international attention on par with O.J. Simpson’s legal travails.

At first blush, the pair of murderers might seem unlikely candidates for their crime. Leopold had graduated from the University of Chicago at age 18. He spoke nine languages and had an IQ of 200. Loeb was equally gifted, a college graduate at 17 who had a fascination with criminal psychology.

Beneath the veneer of patrician refinements, the pair each had dark secrets. Leopold had an appetite for extreme sexual antics and Loeb, a homosexual, used this appetite to cajole his partner from bedroom to crime. Both men were convinced that their respective lofty stations, wealth and privilege exempted them from the fetter of laws binding other men. They were special. Special enough that the pair made a gruesome pact: they sought to commit the perfect crime.

They established false identities and conducted rehearsals for a crime that would eventually claim the life of fourteen year-old Bobbie Franks, Loeb’s distant cousin. They lured Franks into a rented car where Loeb stabbed him multiple times as Leopold drove through busy Chicago traffic.

They dumped the body. Then in an effort to distract police, they sent a ransom note to Franks wealthy father. They then threw the typewriter (used to write the note) into a lake.

The body was poorly hidden and was soon discovered. They typewriter was pulled from the lake and most damning, Loeb’s rather unique prescription glasses were found near Franks’ body.

Alibis soon shriveled. The typewriter was matched to other letters in Leopold’s possession. The pair soon confessed.

As with O. J. Simpson, the trial set off a media storm. Storied legal legend Clarence Darrow agreed to defend the pair. His defense focused not on their guilt or innocence but on the morality of the death penalty. The judge was swayed and imposed life sentences.

Typical of high handed people, Leopold’s father — dissatisfied with Darrow — refused to pay the famous lawyer.

In 1936 Loeb was killed by a fellow inmate while in prison. Leopold was released from prison in 1958, with help from noted poet, Carl Sandburg. Leopold lived the rest of his life in Puerto Rico, dying in 1971.

Even through the long lens of history, there’s little to like about the Leopold and Loeb saga. While Loeb’s end came as a kind of karmic justice, Leopold’s fate ultimately proved what he had assumed at the start — his wealth and familial connections eventually extricated him from a situation (albeit after decades in prison) that most would not have escaped.

This story goes to an important point about the American criminal justice system — it is strongly bifurcated along lines of race and class. Much of the disparity is due to patterns of offending, but that’s only part of the story.

During a recent TED Talk, Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, succinctly framed the deeper question, “Our system isn’t just being shaped in these ways that seem to be distorting around race, they’re also distorted by poverty. We have a system of justice in this country that treats you much better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent. Wealth, not culpability, shapes outcomes… The opposite of poverty is not wealth… the opposite of poverty is justice.”

We see this not just in big cities, but right here in Pine Bluff. Justice, like most social resources, is not distributed equally.