Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Leopold & Loeb

The Trial Begins

Judge Caverly
Judge Caverly

On July 21, 1924, the case of The People against Nathan Leopold, Jr., and Richard Loeb opened in Chief Justice of the Criminal Court John R. Caverly's courtroom.

Darrow approached the bench and began to speak in a low voice. First he assured the court that he was not going to try to have the trial moved somewhere else, nor was he going to try to stop the prosecutors from separating the murder indictments from the kidnapping indictments.

"We want to state frankly here that no one in this case believes that these defendants should be released or are competent to be. We believe that they should be permanently isolated from society... After long reflection and thorough discussion, we have determined to make a motion in this court for each of the defendants in each of the cases to withdraw our pleas of not guilty and enter a plea of guilty."

Everyone in the courtroom was shocked. They had expected Darrow to plead them not guilty by reason of insanity.

Leopold, Darrow and Loeb
Leopold, Darrow and Loeb

Darrow had planned this for some time and discussed it with the families, but did not tell the boys until that morning. The boys understood that it was their best chance to escape hanging. He explained it to them this way, "Crowe had you indicted both for murder and for kidnapping. He'd try you on one charge, say, the murder. If he got less than a hanging verdict, he could turn around and try you on the other charge. There is only one way to deprive him of that second chance to plead guilty to both charges before he...has an opportunity to withdraw one of them. That's why the element of surprise is absolutely necessary.

There was more to Darrow's rationale. In pleading guilty, the boys could avoid a jury trial. A single judge would determine the sentence. Had he chosen to plead them not guilty by reason of insanity, they would have had a jury trial. Given the public outcry over the crime and the statements the boys had made, it was unlikely that the boys would fare well with any jury.

Darrow realized that it was comparatively easy for a jury to sentence the boys to death because it would be a shared decision. For Caverly to sentence the boys to death was a decision that he would have to live with as solely his own. He felt that he had a decent chance with Caverly considering the boy's mental conditions and their youth.

Caverly told the defendants to approach the bench and questioned each boy: "if your plea be guilty, and the plea of guilty is entered into this case, the court may sentence you to death; the court may sentence you to the penitentiary for the term of your natural life; the court may sentence you to the penitentiary for a term of years not less than fourteen. Now, realizing the consequences of your plea, do you still desire to plead guilty?"

Both boys answered "yes." They were beginning to understand the magnitude of their predicament.

Judge Caverly, looking very serious, was beginning to understand the magnitude of his predicament. He alone would decide whether or not the boys would hang. It was not a decision he wanted to make.


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